Professor Hayden Lorimer looking through a white cardboard frame at the sky with grey clouds and trees in the background.

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How to reframe Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Winter blues getting you down? Researchers have developed free online resources to help people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder to see the season in a new light.

On a cold winter’s day in Edinburgh a shaft of sunlight breaks through the grey clouds over the Meadows. Professor Hayden Lorimer, Chair of Human Geography in the School of GeoSciences at the University, holds up a white cardboard frame and focuses on a patch of sky. Within the frame is a surprising swirl of colours ranging from pastel blue to deep coal.

Look to the skies

Reframing our perspective on the winter sky is one of the tasks that formed part of a series of workshops Professor Lorimer ran from late 2022 to early 2023 for people living with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The success of these workshops has led to the launch of a range of free online resources available for anyone whose mood is particularly affected during the cold darker months.

As a cultural geographer Professor Lorimer is interested in how the world comes alive to people and how it is differently experienced through their ongoing relationships with places and landscapes.

“This project is helping me to think about how a sense of belonging, or feeling estranged, can extend to weather-worlds, encompassing the changing seasons, the elements, qualities of light, and perception of the sky above our heads,” he explains.

Professor Hayden Lorimer holding up a white cardboard frame up to the grey sky in the Meadows in Edinburgh
Professor Hayden Lorimer frames a patch of winter sky in the Meadows

Exploring the great outdoors

Professor Lorimer teamed up with fellow geographer Professor Hester Parr at the University of Glasgow and artist Alec Finlay to set up the workshops in Glasgow for residents with lived experience of SAD.

The workshops saw a group come together to carry out a series of outdoor tasks each with a chosen theme, including: building a miniature wintertime shelter; talking about your SAD self; and framing a patch of winter sky to call your own.

“Once back indoors, over a warming cup and slice of cake, our participants were encouraged to share their words, ideas, impressions and images,” says Professor Lorimer. “Sharing and comparing was vital. Together, participants were able to establish a common language and enjoy the experience of hearing their voice heard by others. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, running right across the entire workshop series.”

Useful resources for all

The data collected during and after the workshops has helped the project team to develop the free open access Wintering Well resources, offering people affected by the changing seasons a chance to reframe their outlook, meet others experiencing SAD and find coping mechanisms to make the winter months less challenging.

Among the resources is an online guidebook, Light is a Right: A Guide to Wintering Well, which shares examples of creative exercises to try out, along with reflections from the workshop participants, including journal entries, poetry and a letter addressed to winter. “We hope it will inspire many more people to reflect on their own personal relationship with the season, the potential impacts of low light on their mood, and how it’s possible to counteract this effect creatively,” says Professor Lorimer.

He goes on to describe how the resources are encouraging people to support each other, including a downloadable Wintering Together Toolkit which provides information for those wishing to arrange meet-ups in their community, workplace or among friends: “A number of our original group members have now taken the next step of forming a self-organising collective who arrange their own Wintering Well get-togethers and outings, independent of the project team.”

In addition, the team has collaborated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) experts on an online course called Living Life to the Full: SAD.

“We’ve co-created a dedicated digital learning programme, designed to help SAD-affected individuals who prefer to take a more structured approach to self-help during the winter months, and might struggle to access in-person support,” explains Professor Lorimer. “Living Life to the Full uses a CBT approach to counteract low mood, stress and anxiety, and comes recommended by NHS Trusts.”

Professor Hayden Lorimer standing on the Meadows in Edinburgh holding a white cardboard frame with grey clouds and trees in the background.
Professor Lorimer and colleagues have created resources to help people winter well

Time to spread the word

Since launching in autumn 2023 Wintering Well resources have attracted attention in the press, and on TV and radio. The project team also appeared on the BBC Scotland Outdoors podcast discussing their research.

Professor Lorimer and the team are keen to see the resources circulate as widely as possible and are taking the next steps to build partnerships to help facilitate this.

“We’re planning to work with community link workers – practitioners who work within GP surgeries providing non-medial support for people experiencing personal, social and emotional difficulties,” he says. “We’re also exploring ways to work with local library services, so that all borrowers issued with a therapeutic light lamp also receive a free print copy of our guide Light is a Right: A Guide to Wintering Well.”

Writer and Edinburgh-based GP Dr Gavin Francis is a friend of the project and wholeheartedly supports the team’s work. “As a GP I see every year the way Scotland’s winter can drag people down, making them feel tired, depressed, and lacking in motivation,” he says. “I’m delighted that this project is broadening awareness about the importance of light to health, and the way that it is helping people who suffer from SAD to find fellowship, encouragement and sustenance through the darker months of the year.”

A creative approach

So, what makes the Wintering Well resources effective? For Professor Lorimer the arts-lead approach underpinning their development has been vital. Having worked with artists on previous public-facing projects, he has found collaboration to be accessible and inclusive, with the potential to deliver lasting benefits.

“Everyone has the ability to think and act creatively, and it can be really liberating to discover how you can express your feelings more fully by participating in an unfamiliar activity,” he explains. “The creative arts can be a way for researchers and artists to design interventions with real-world affects and impacts.” 

Professor Lorimer and poet-artist Alec Finlay collaborated to develop the tasks for the Wintering Well workshops: “Alec’s track-record of work on recuperation, healing, and the wisdoms inherent in chronic illness made him the perfect choice of project partner.”   

Alec has been full of praise for the participants and their willingness to embrace the ethos of the workshops, as he explains: “This was a group of people willing to give of themselves, who had the courage and humility to share difficult feelings and shadow selves, and, in doing so help one another.”

Professor Hester Parr from the University of Glasgow and workshop participant Catherine Ingles walking side by side smiling in Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow.
Professor Hester Parr, the University of Glasgow (right) and workshop participant Catherine Ingles in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

Feeling clear benefits

Project Principal Investigator at Glasgow, Hester Parr, echoes Alec’s sentiment: “The Wintering Well workshops showed that people who live with SAD can deal better with their symptoms by being part of a community where they can meet regularly outdoors.”

For Catherine Ingles, a workshop participant, the experience of getting together with fellow people experiencing SAD was “a blessing”. She felt the benefits of the creativity and variety in the sessions, as she explains: “The techniques that worked best for me to overcome SAD were the workshops, talking to people with SAD, the practice of ‘noticing’, taking photographs, engaging in the outdoors in a childlike and experimental way such as making shelter building.”

She continues: “I think overall the last winter has just gone better than the ones preceding it, trying to actively overcome the SAD part of it rather than all the previous winters that had gone before, where I was doing my wallowing.”

A brighter outlook

It’s clear that the workshops and online resources have been making an impact. Along with exploring Wintering Well and of course speaking to a medical professional if you feel you are experiencing low mood, what key advice would Professor Lorimer give people affected by SAD?

“Stay social. Be creative. Distilled to their essence, these are the key takeaways about how to ensure you make light matter in your everyday routines,” he says. “Finding fun ways to get yourself across the doorstep can be a real help. But also remembering that being creative with light can be part of how you shape your home life too. And ensuring that you make space to talk to family, friends, and colleagues at work when you feel that a lack of light is affecting your health and wellbeing.”

Image credit: Professor Hayden Lorimer in the Meadows by Andrew Perry; Professor Hester Parr and Catherine Ingles in Kelvingrove Park by Martin Shields.