I am, by all accounts, a cold weather person – and now that the oppressive summer humidity has lifted, I’m feeling less permanently overstimulated which I’m sure my loved ones will agree is a win all-round.
However, one thing that even I cannot romanticise is just how difficult the dark mornings and evenings can be, especially in these first few weeks of autumn when it just feels so sudden.
It wasn’t long ago that I could finish work at 5pm and sit in the garden, soaking up the last of the day’s rays. But now home time hits and it’s pretty dark outside. I’m fighting sleep before I’ve even tucked into dinner.
It turns out, my changes in mood, energy and productivity aren’t rare and, according to Dr Sue Peacock, a consultant sleep health psychologist who specialises in sleep disorders, the changes in light can have a “significant” impact on sleep, wellbeing and mood.
Why darker days and nights impact wellbeing
My whole issue with feeling tired far too early in the day? Very normal, apparently.
Peacock, who is an ambassador for Opera Beds, explains: “Darker evenings can trigger the release of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, earlier on – which means some people may feel sleepy earlier than they usually would, especially in relaxing environments like dimly-lit rooms.”
Additionally, if you struggle to get up in the morning during these months, it’s because your body still thinks that it’s nighttime, making getting out of bed all the more difficult.
Peacock says that this can actually be a problem throughout the day, noting that “the decrease in natural light can impact our cognitive functioning”.
She adds: “Reduced alertness and concentration levels during the day are common complaints when the evenings get darker earlier.”
Peacock says “SAD is a medically-recognised syndrome that affects a person’s mental health”.
It’s usually diagnosed by a GP and key symptoms are changes in sleep pattern, lethargy, sleepiness during the day, fatigue, difficulty in coping with daily activities and even depression.
SAD can be treated with a short course of antidepressants, but this method is not for everyone, notes Peacock. “Other treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy and light therapy. For those living with this condition ‘self-help’ is necessary,” she adds.
How to minimise the impact of darker days
Peacock suggests that if you feel your mood and productivity dipping during the colder months, the following steps could help:
Maximise your exposure to natural light
During the day, make an effort to spend time outdoors. Open curtains and blinds to let in the daylight.
Maintain a constant sleep schedule
Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Get in the habit of getting up and out of bed shortly after your alarm. Consistency is important for regulating your internal clock.
Adjust your social activities
Reduced daylight hours can limit opportunities for outdoor and social activities. People may need to adjust their schedules and commit to still going ahead with activities every now and then, to boost their mental and physical wellbeing.
Maintain a regular exercise regime to help boost mood and energy levels – even a short walk on a lunch break will help.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine
Establish a calming bedtime routine that signals to your body that it’s time to wind down at the right time. This might include reading a book, taking a warm bath, or practising relaxation techniques.
Control your sleep environment
Ensure your bedroom is set up for sleep – that it’s cool, dark and quiet – and invest in comfortable and supportive pillows and a mattress.
Consider light therapy
Those who have difficulty adjusting to darker evenings or experience SAD might find light therapy boxes effective. Many of them simulate natural daylight and act as sunrise alarm clocks. Exposure to this in the morning can help reset your circadian rhythm.
An environment that maximises daylight and artificial light is important. Decluttering a room will create additional space, improve air circulation, and help people feel more positive, says the expert.
If a room is painted in a dark colour, consider a lighter colour or soft pastel shade. Pictures can brighten a space and be a source of stimulation, so hang a favourite picture on the wall opposite your bed.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.