January and February can be a challenging time. 

It’s been dark in the mornings and evenings for weeks now, it’s cold and damp, the festive season is a fading memory and we’ve got last month’s bills to pay. It’s little wonder that many of us struggle with our mental health at this time of year. 

This is the ideal moment, then, to launch a new monthly EDP column from Norfolk’s leading mental health charity, offering practical advice for your and your family’s wellbeing. 

Norfolk and Waveney Mind will help you tackle different challenges around the calendar: for example, by drawing mental health benefits from nature in spring, managing climate change anxiety in summer and helping children who are worried about returning to school in the autumn. 

But to begin with, we’ll look at an issue that hits some people hard in these darkest weeks of the year.

The NHS estimates around 2m people in the UK suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately abbreviated to SAD. It can actually also affect people in summer – symptoms then include tension and irritability caused by heat exposure – but we’re going to look at the winter version, which can induce persistent low mood, lethargy, despair, weight gain and difficulty concentrating. 

The causes seem to derive from lack of exposure to sunlight. 

According to the NHS’ guidance, this might affect the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that produces the hormones melatonin and serotonin.

When deprived of sufficient sunlight, people with SAD seem to produce more melatonin than usual, making them sleepy, and less serotonin, which affects appetite and mood, leading to depression.

The fact it’s dark when we have to get up in the mornings can also disrupt our body-clock, causing lethargy and difficulty with cognitive function. 

So how can SAD sufferers help themselves? 

The best advice – and this can aid anyone, whether or not they have a SAD diagnosis – is to maximise exposure to natural light. Y

ou may know that one popular remedy is to use a light box that simulates sunlight, but the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence cannot confirm its effectiveness.

If possible, genuine daylight is the best option, directly on your skin rather than through a window. Try to get outside soon after waking in the morning; this can actually help you sleep the following night.

The neurobiologist Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab on Twitter/X) explains: “Viewing morning sunlight increases morning cortisol levels by 50%, which is a good thing (early in the day) because it increases immune function, alertness, and ‘sets’ a timer to fall asleep [around] 14-16 hours later. On clear days do 5-10min. Overcast days 20-30min.”

Sonja Chilvers, chief operating officer at Norfolk and Waveney Mind, adds: “Go for a lunchtime walk too, soak up sunlight whenever you have the opportunity and take regular exercise outdoors – in daylight if possible for maximum benefit, but in the evening is still great if that’s your only option. 

On cold, dark nights it can be a real challenge to push yourself to get off the sofa and go out for some fresh air; it’s easy to fall into a slump that’s hard to break out of.

But some physical exercise can have a huge positive effect on our mood, self-esteem and stress levels. Even a brisk walk can make a difference, but jogging, cycling, swimming or playing sport are better still.” 

Some SAD sufferers are also prescribed antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) by their GP, and can benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling. Remember, too, that it can help to talk outside of a therapeutic setting.

February 1 is Time to Talk Day, the annual event where people are encouraged to discuss mental health and check how colleagues, friends and family are doing.

Norfolk and Waveney Mind will be at The Forum in Norwich from 10am to 3pm that day. If you want to talk to someone in confidence, or would like to find out more about our services, then please come along and see us. 

For resources and a list of all of Norfolk and Waveney Mind’s services, visit www.norfolkandwaveneymind.org.uk or call 03003305488.

For urgent mental health support, call NHS 111 option 2.

For more information, visit www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/about-sad/