Today, Friday 21st December, marks the shortest day of the year, while predictions are that this winter will be one of the coldest on record. Many of us struggle through the months of December, January and February, but what happens when it’s more than ‘just’ the winter blues? If you’re a nurse or a healthcare support worker coping with seasonal affective disorder, this time of year can be particularly gruelling.
What is SAD?
According to the NHS, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression. It’s sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ as it occurs, or is more severe, during the winter months – although a lesser known fact is that some people with SAD experience symptoms during the summer, and actually feel better during the winter!
The onset of SAD often coincides with the clocks going back at the end of October and the days becoming shorter and darker. For many, this means months of going to work and arriving home in the dark. Symptoms of SAD include feeling low and irritable, lacking energy and struggling to get out of bed, losing interest in things you usually enjoy and overeating and gaining weight.
We don’t know exactly what causes SAD but it’s thought to be linked to the lack of sunlight. This impacts on hormones such as melatonin – which makes you sleepy and is thought to be produced in higher levels by people with SAD – and the mood hormone serotonin, which could be lowered by the lack of sunlight. There’s also thought to be a genetic link.
SAD and nursing
Nurses and Healthcare Support Workers can be susceptible to SAD, firstly because it’s a condition that tends to affect women, and the majority of the nursing/healthcare population is female. Secondly, nurses/healthcare support workers tend to work long shifts, which can be difficult for the body clock to adjust to at the best of times. Irregular working patterns, such as those worked by staff and agency nurses/healthcare support workers, and disruption to our natural body clock mean that nurses/healthcare support workers can potentially go for days without seeing any natural daylight at all, which can have a severe impact on mood.
How to manage SAD through winter
There are a number of ways to live well with SAD through the winter months, including:
1. Light box therapy
People with SAD can buy special light boxes and bright lights to combat the disorder. You simply sit near them and absorb the bright light they give off, which imitates natural light and eases symptoms. Light therapy is also known as phototherapy and helps treat the root cause of the condition.
Winter is often the time of year we’re least keen to take exercise, yet it’s one of the best ways we can help our mood. Try setting yourself a target of 15 minutes a day to get outside for a brisk walk, whether on your lunch break or before you start work, to get in the right frame of mind for your shift. Rope in a friend; you’re less likely to make last-minute excuses if someone is relying on you.
3. Seeing friends
This can be the best medicine, whether going for a walk or jog together, above, or making time for a mid-week coffee. At this time of year we’re often so stressed and busy shopping, wrapping gifts and preparing for visitors, we forget it’s the season of goodwill! Remind yourself that Christmas is about seeing family and friends; a problem shared really is a problem halved, and being there to listen to their problems can make yourself feel better too.
4. Vitamins and supplements
Often overlooked in combating any low mood or depression, vitamins and supplements can really give energy levels a boost. Vitamin D can help combat a lack of exposure to sunlight, while omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to have an impact on anxiety. St John’s Wort can also work well for people with mild depression; ask your pharmacist for more details.
5. Professional support
As nurses/healthcare support workers, we’re used to caring for others and often forget to ask for help ourselves. Talking therapies such as CBT and counselling can equip you with good coping strategies, whilst the right antidepressants can make a big difference to your day to day wellbeing – always speak to your GP if you feel it’s time for extra support.
At Richmond we’re proud of our record of looking after our agency nurses and healthcare support workers. With our own nursing background and a proven 20-year history as agency leaders, we understand what our nurses/healthcare support workers go through and are here to make your work as rewarding and enjoyable as we can. We’re currently recruiting nurses and healthcare support workers, so please call us on 01554 756148 or register online to find out more.