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In pursuit of light: The bond between SAD and the HSP

‘As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colour

We’ve all experienced the pang of sadness that washes over us when the days get shorter and the nights grow longer. For some people, the shift in seasons and loss of light can cause symptoms similar to depression. This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it is an obstacle to maintaining good mental health and wellbeing. 

Sunlight: The ancient source of wellbeing

Sunlight gives us vitamin D which is pivotal for bone health, and the functioning of our immune and neuromuscular system. It also causes the nocturnal production of melatonin, the brain’s sleep chemical, to occur sooner thus helping us sleep more easily at night. Lastly, sunlight boosts our mood by increasing our serotonin, which is the chemical that mediates satisfaction, happiness and optimism. 

This means that the arrival of winter and autumn starves us of the sunlight we need for optimum health and wellbeing. The term ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD) entered the English lexicon in 1984, but observations of negative affect triggered by seasonal variation have been noted as early as 300 BC. References throughout history are not surprising, as Linda Geddes notes in her illuminating book Chasing the Sun, “Life itself arose on earth because its relationship with the sun was a special one”. 

HSP: An alternative perspective of SAD

Symptoms of SAD are typically low mood and a lack of interest in life, but other indicators include low energy, as well as an increase in appetite, sleep, and irritability. In the UK, three people in every 100 experience SAD, and women are three times more likely to struggle during this period than men. 

Another way of understanding seasonally induced mood changes is through the lens of sensitivity. Coined by Elaine Aron, a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a someone who is acutely aware of subtle changes in their surroundings. Recent research suggests that this distinct personality trait, which is found in one out of every five people, is correlated with experiences of SAD.

HSPs notice the passing of time, and so transitions are more overwhelming to navigate. According to counsellor Sheryl Paul, this is why they can be struck by grief once the autumnal leaves start to fall to the ground. And then with winter comes stillness and solitude, which, she argues, are the two most challenging experiences for our wellbeing because they stand in stark contrast to the aliveness of summer and the promise of spring. SAD is therefore less a disorder than a reflection of one’s exquisite sensitivity to the world around them. 

Guidance to shelter from winter’s grip

Here are some recommendations for those whose wellbeing is impacted by colder months:

Meet daylight first thing: It’s harder to step away from our desk once we’re in the flow of work. Before the emails and meetings takeover, go outside to bathe in daylight even if it’s just for a few minutes onto your doorstep or balcony. 

Be intentional about indoor lighting: Bring light to the shadows. Check out our blog on ecotherapy and biophilic design where we discuss the benefits of a workspace that reflects nature, such as a forest-green lamp, or a cedar and oakwood scented candle. A lightbox, which offers light without the UV rays, is a popular treatment for SAD that counteracts chemical changes in the brain to improve wellbeing. Sunrise clocks are also a possible option for waking up in the darker mornings.

Stay warm: HSPs are more affected by temperature shifts. Do you own a favourite jumper or item of warm clothing that makes you feel cosy? Perhaps the colours or pattern make you smile, bring to mind a fond memory or the fabric just feels really comforting.

Seek CBT or practise mindfulness: Our culture reinforces the idea that summer is great for wellbeing, while winter is a depressing period. CBT, of which mindfulness is a core element, focuses on changing these negative associations, and increasing enjoyment through enjoyable activities. Indeed, research suggests CBT is an effective treatment for SAD. 

Date: 28th November 2022

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