• Dr Vicki Connop

Beating the winter blues

As I write this I’m listening to rain lashing on the window panes, fire is roaring, curtains tightly shut, hatches firmly battened down. Yes we’re well and truly in the depths of winter time and the light at the end of the tunnel is not quite visible yet.

‘Winter blues’ is an increasingly widely recognised phenomenon, where many people experience a decline in mood and energy levels over the winter months, leaving them feeling more lethargic, low, irritable or withdrawn. One theory is that this may be related to shortened daylight hours affecting neurotransmitters in the brain and the production of hormones such as serotonin and melatonin. This, combined with lifestyle changes in winter months (reduced social contact, reduced exercise/activity), can leave us more vulnerable to mood changes.

So how can we practice self-care and reduce our vulnerability to seasonal mood changes? There are a number of practical steps we can take to increase our resilience over the winter months. These include:

· Exposure to daylight - During the cold weather and shortened daylight hours we naturally spend more time indoors and under artificial lighting. Research has shown that as well as vitamin D deficiencies, lack of sunlight can disrupt our hormone production and mood. Try to take time to be outside at some point every day. Even just a brief walk during a lunch break or 15 minutes sweeping the driveway can improve our mood and increase our resilience.

· Exercise - Research has demonstrated time and time again that exercise is one of the single most beneficial things you can do for your mood. Of course when you’re feeling low, motivating yourself to move can be a struggle, but when we exercise the brain releases endorphins (feel good chemicals) and the likelihood is you will find your energy and mental state has shifted by the end of your walk, run, or exercise class.

· Finding positives – Our natural tendency is to do less over winter months and conserve our energy, so it can seem like there is less fun stuff to look forward to. We may need to take a more proactive approach to planning events and activities we enjoy and it can be a good time to start planning a holiday or new project. It can also help to notice and acknowledge positive aspects of winter, such as reading books by the fire, winter sports, hot foods, mulled wine or whatever it is you enjoy that is particular to this season.

· Taking care of physical health – If we’re at the mercy of colds, flus and other ailments we are much more likely to feel low in mood and overwhelmed by the stresses of life. Whilst sometimes this is hard to avoid, we can increase our resilience by eating well, getting adequate sleep, taking vitamin supplements and following advice from registered health practitioners.

· Reducing alcohol (and other mood altering drugs) – Whilst alcohol can seem like a short-term escape from negative thoughts and feelings, in fact it tends to exacerbate our problems by acting as a mood depressant and creating a host of other problems in our lives, from hangovers and poor decision-making, through to debt and addiction. Keeping alcohol consumption in moderation is essential to good mental health.

· Balance sleep – When our mood is out of balance we tend to sleep either too much or too little. Both can exacerbate imbalances in our mood. Establishing a regular pattern with a consistent time for going to bed and getting up can help. Reducing caffeine and screen-time for a few hours before going to bed can also help to regulate our sleep-wake cycle.

· Relaxation – When life is demanding and stress levels are high, our bodies spend a lot of time in ‘fight or flight’ mode with the sympathetic nervous system activated. We can help to counter-balance the effects of this by spending time practicing activities that induce relaxation. Simple techniques such as deep breathing can help our bodies rebalance and recharge, and practices such as yoga and meditation have been proven to support our emotional as well as physical health and wellbeing.

· Social support – When we’re feeling low, social connection can be the last thing we feel like, yet it’s a vital part of our emotional wellbeing. Social isolation is a major risk factor for depression so we need to avoid the urge to hibernate completely during the winter months and continue to make contact with family and friends, talk through issues that we’re struggling with and seek support.

· Self-kindness – Most of us have a little critical voice inside our head that judges and beats us up at times when we’re not feeling great. Learn to notice these thoughts without treating them as the ‘truth’ and try to talk to yourself in the way you would address a good friend, with gentleness and kindness.

Psychological therapy can also help people address the unhelpful habits and negative beliefs that can accompany periods of low mood, as well as possible underlying issues that may need attention such as grief and loss, relationship issues, anger, guilt or low self-worth.

If you find yourself struggling with any of the following, you may be experiencing a more severe form of winter blues, referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of Clinical Depression.

Symptoms of SAD include:

· Prolonged feelings of sadness or depressed mood

· Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy

· Changes in appetite, perhaps accompanied by weight gain or weight loss

· Loss of energy or increased fatigue

· Feelings of guilt or worthlessness

· Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions

· Thoughts that life is not worth living

If this sounds like you, I strongly recommend seeking a consultation with a GP, registered therapist or mental health professional. There is lots of help available and you do not need to suffer in silence.

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