How to Beat the Winter Blues – As we approach the winter months, the colder weather and darker mornings and evenings can have an impact on our mood. Many of us are familiar with the winter blues, also known as winter depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is thought to affect 1 in 15 people in the UK.
Even though millions of people report experiencing winter-related low mood, there are many misconceptions about this issue, possibly because symptoms can vary so much from person to person.
SAD occurs more commonly in people living in northern latitudes and is also more commonly experienced by women.
SAD is characterised by a low mood you can’t shake off during the winter months. It can affect your emotional well-being so much that you lose interest in things you usually enjoy.
People can experience winter blues in various degrees, ranging from feeling a bit down to find it very difficult to function which may lead to taking time off work. SAD also occurs more commonly in people living in northern latitudes and is also more commonly experienced by women.
Like depression, symptoms of SAD include some, but not necessarily all, of the following:
Persistent low mood
Loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
Feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness
Lethargy (lacking of energy) and feeling sleepy during the day
Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
If you think that you are experiencing winter depression or SAD, Nuffield Health’s Mental Health Prevention Lead, Lisa Gunn gives her top tips on how to manage the effects and deal with the symptoms.
More exposure to sunlight!
Given the problem is associated with a lack of sunlight – the first tip is to spend more time in the sun, even a brief lunchtime walk can be beneficial.
You can also make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible and sit near windows when you’re indoors. Access to sunlight and increased Vitamin D is likely to boost your mood.
Although the research in this area is mixed, some people find that light therapy can help improve their mood considerably. This involves sitting by a special lamp called a light box, usually for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning.
Light boxes come in a variety of designs, including desk lamps and wall-mounted fixtures. They produce a very bright light. The intensity of the light is measured in lux – the higher lux, the brighter the light.
Dawn-simulating alarm clocks, which gradually light up your bedroom as you wake up, may also be useful for some people.
It’s thought the light may improve symptoms by encouraging your brain to reduce the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy) and increase the production of serotonin (a hormone that affects your mood).
It’s also important to eat well during the winter. Winter blues can make you crave sugary foods and carbohydrates such as chocolate, pasta, and bread, but don’t forget to include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet.
Nutrition plays a big role in how we feel. Having a varied balanced diet can set you on a path to improve your symptoms. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats will give you more energy and prevent you from feeling sluggish.
Activity has even more benefits for emotional well-being with research consistently showing how it can help to improve mood. It also helps by providing a pleasant change of scenery, as well as the opportunity to meet new people.
Being outside doing exercises will boost your mood and will make you feel more connected to your surroundings. It also helps you gain perspective, particularly spending time in nature.
People can go out less in winter due to poor weather and dark nights. The urge to ‘hibernate’ can result in people becoming withdrawn and spending less time with others.
Social connections are key to our well-being. Biologically isolation is toxic to the human nervous system. Lack of human connection puts our mental and physical health at risk. Having meaningful relationships and being able to give to others can greatly improve our resilience. Our bodies release feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine when we are connected and engaged in positive interactions with others. It is important to think about how to maintain these vital connections during the winter months.
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep and mood are closely connected and getting good quality sleep can help to improve mood. One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a regular sleep routine. As adults, this is often something we forget, but ‘training’ ourselves to wake up and go to sleep at the same time can be helpful, as can creating a relaxing routine before bed.
It can also help to avoid strenuous physical activity before bed and going to sleep on a full stomach or hungry as these can all interrupt sleep. Consider having a food buffer and eating your main meal a few hours before bed. If you do start to get hungry before bed, then consider a small snack.
You should also consider limiting caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol as they are stimulants and work to keep us awake. They can also cause fragmented sleep and breaks in our natural sleep cycles. Another good tip is to take all electric devices out of the bedroom, as even small amounts of light can affect our sensitive ‘circadian rhythms’ or natural body clocks.