Cold, wet weather. Short days and dark nights. The winter months in the northern hemisphere present a challenge to many of us.
In the UK, many people suffer from low moods, which can develop into a ‘winter depression’ or seasonally adjusted depression (SAD) during the winter months when sunshine and natural daylight are limited.
The lack of sunshine may have an effect on serotonin and melatonin production - hormones that affect our mood and sleeping habits. So it’s no wonder we feel a bit down and struggle to get up out of bed in the mornings.
The increase in seasonal flu and other assorted viruses and bugs (not to mention our old nemesis Covid-19) contribute to the misery. Dodging the coughs and sneezes can be especially difficult if you have school-age children.
It can also be a stressful time because it's the holiday season.
Yes, we love spending time with our family and friends but the busyness can take its toll. And even the simplest of tasks can take ages because of the crowds, the queues, the traffic or the weather. For some, it’s not a busy time but a lonely one.
While Christmas is behind us, the countdown to spring seems to tick along slowly.
So it’s fair to say the winter season presents a number of challenges that can affect us both physically and mentally.
The good habits we normally adopt in better weather tend to be less appealing than normal and it’s easy to fall into the habit of unhealthy lifestyle patterns that neglect our general wellbeing.
Hibernation or seasonal overindulgence might be potential options up to the end of the year but they’re not the recommended course of action once January rolls around.
So, how do you manage to beat the winter blues?
Here are five reminders of things we can do to get our mood and our health in a good place.
Get as much exposure to natural light as possible
Our circadian rhythms govern our awake-sleep cycles, and when the winter days are short and dark, we can end up feeling sluggish quite early in the day. Getting out into natural light helps regulate these natural rhythms.
Walking for as little as 10 minutes a day can have a positive effect on our mood, as well as our overall feeling of wellbeing. It might be tricky when the weather is bad, so it’s important to take advantage of sunnier days when you can.
Light boxes can be useful appliances. These imitate natural light and it’s thought they can influence the chemical reactions that take place in the brain when we’re exposed to natural light.
The Mayo Clinic recommends we use them for 20-30 minutes within an hour of getting up, although if you have certain conditions like bipolar disorder or glaucoma you might want to talk to your doctor first.
Remember the basics of good hygiene
The Covid pandemic was a reminder that washing our hands is one of the most important and effective hygiene measures possible. This is especially true when so many colds and bugs are prevalent. Using hand sanitiser when you visit public places also helps to keep the bugs at bay.
If you’re of a certain age, consider getting the flu jab. Flu can have devastating consequences for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
Keep an eye on your diet and nutrition
For most people this isn’t a great problem especially over the Festive Season when we tend to overindulge.
But during the winter months, we might feel less inclined to eat as much fruit and vegetables in favour of comfort foods. So it’s just as important to have a balanced diet since this contributes to a healthy immune system.
We don’t need to go full-on ‘New Year New You’ and make massive dietary changes - in fact, trying to change too many things at once makes change harder to accept. So just aim for a balanced diet and keep an eye on what you’re eating.
It’s also the time of year when it might help to take a multivitamin. Generally, we can get all the vitamins and minerals we need from a healthy, balanced diet, and taking extra supplements can be a waste of time and money.
But when we’re under stress and pressure at work (finishing all those important projects before the holidays) or at home (dealing with the stress of Christmas shopping) or just coming in from the cold day-in-day-out, our immune system is under a lot of extra pressure.
Vitamin D supplements might also be especially useful, and in fact the UK Government recommends we take vitamin D during the winter months to compensate for the lack of natural sunlight.
And that also means we need to stay hydrated! (Water not wine!)
Manage your social media
Social media can have a negative impact on your mental health. And that’s especially true at the start of the year when everyone’s talking about goals and New Year resolutions.
It can easily feel that everyone else is making great strides towards a bigger, better and brighter future. But remember, social media is largely curated content with many accounts showing a crafted and often false version of reality that makes you think you’re missing out.
For more information about social media’s role in mental health, check out this article in the Nursing Times. It highlights some of the dangers from making comparisons between our own lives and what we see on social media and makes interesting reading!
Social media is also a great place for conspiracy theories, negativity and drama, and it can easily contribute to high blood pressure! It’s so easy to be sucked into discussions that go nowhere with foolish people.
Now, like lots of people, I use social media a lot. But the key is to be selective so that it actually helps you rather than hinders you. Don’t waste your mental energy on social media content that contributes to your low mood!
Maintain contact with others (have a balanced social life)
When it’s cold and wet outside, the last thing you want to do is step outside and visit your friends or relatives. But maintaining social connections is one of the best ways to beat the blues.
It might take more effort to plan and organise a meet-up but having regular contact with others is important. Meet for coffee. Go for a walk together. Get involved in a sports club or join events at a local community centre.
These activities help break the boredom and that feeling of ‘I just can’t be bothered’ that characterise the winter months.
If you or someone you know suffers from low moods in the winter months, and are finding it particularly hard this year, help is available. Organisations like Breathing Space, MIND and The Samaritans are ready to help.
These five steps aren’t rocket science but over the winter months it’s so easy to be sucked into a low mood that we sometimes forget the simple steps that can make a real difference to our lives.
And before we know it we’ll be enjoying the light spring mornings once again…