How to Banish the Winter Blues
With the cost of living rising sharply and the ongoing impact of permacrisis, none of us are immune to emotional struggles this winter. Here we provide some top tips to help you know how to banish the winter blues.
What are the winter blues?
It is thought that around 2 million people in the UK suffer from the winter blues, with people of all ages affected, including children. Some experience a relatively mild set of symptoms, while others develop full-blown depression.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), often referred to as the winter blues, is a collection of symptoms affecting our mood, sleep and energy levels during the darker months. Linked to a reduction in exposure to sunlight, increases in the neurotransmitter melatonin affect our emotions and behaviour. This can lead to us feeling depressed and irritable. We may have difficulty sleeping and feel lethargic during the day. We may find ourselves overeating or just feeling unmotivated and unsociable.
What you can do to banish the winter blues
If the symptoms described above sound familiar, there are a number of strategies that can help.
1. Take care of yourself
Keep a diary
Try noting down any fluctuations in your mood and identifying the triggers. What do you notice about how you are thinking and feeling prior to mood dips? How does this affect what you do? Gaining insight into the pattern of your symptoms will help you to identify the strategies needed to tackle them.
Many studies of light therapy show that increasing exposure to certain wavelengths of light can help to reduce melatonin and improve symptoms in 60-90% of people. To find out more about this form of assistance, check out the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA).
Spend time outdoors
Natural daylight can also be helpful for reducing symptoms. On brighter days, try going outdoors particularly at midday when the sun is at its highest. Sitting near windows and painting your home with pale colours will allow you to benefit from reflected light from outside.
Exercise and healthy eating
Research shows that eating healthily and taking regular exercise can improve mood and energy levels. Just a one-hour walk taken in the middle of the day is sufficient to have an impact. Walking and healthy eating also bring a wide range of other benefits.
2. Be kind to yourself
Building self-compassion is particularly important when you feel low in mood. Noticing when you are struggling, feeling overwhelmed, anxious or stressed is the first step. When you notice these feelings, it can be too easy to launch into self-criticism. This only makes you feel worse and can create a vicious circle of negativity that fuels further stress and low mood.
Practising the loving-kindness mindfulness meditation will help you to focus in on and grow your feelings of self-compassion. Mindfulness practice also stimulates parasympathetic nervous system arousal, leading to feelings of relaxation and calm.
Recognising when you are being self-critical and learning to take charge of your negative thinking can help to banish low mood. Thinking flexibly allows you to make sense of negative events, put them in perspective and view them in more optimistic ways, which helps to boost your mood.
With lots of pressures and demands in our work and personal lives, it often feels like there is just so much to do. It can be easy to forego breaks in favour of getting things done. But when you do this, you end up being less productive and more stressed. It becomes harder to make decisions and takes longer to complete tasks, leading to more overwhelm as the jobs pile up around you.
Giving yourself time to rest and scheduling down time is key to managing feelings of overload. Taking time out to relax, engaging in a hobby, talking to a friend or watching a movie may feel indulgent but will pay dividends as you will feel more energised as a result.
Notice and savour positive experiences
Noticing and savouring positive emotions is another way to boost parasympathetic nervous system arousal, allowing you to feel calm, safe and relaxed. In turn, this soothes the sympathetic nervous system arousal linked with stress and anxiety.
Engaging in activities we find interesting builds our connection to positive emotions such as interest, pride or amusement.
3. Spend time with loved ones
When we experience the winter blues, we can find all manner of reasons for not seeing our friends and family. We can easily forget the importance of strong, supportive and reciprocal relationships for our resilience and wellbeing.
When we connect with others, we experience a shot of oxytocin in our brains which brings feelings of belonging and helps us to feel calm and content. In this way, sharing your concerns or fears with loved ones or trusted friends helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system. This aids clear thinking and problem-solving which will help you to find ways to address any difficulties you are facing.
4. Access help and support
For more immediate support, there are several helplines available:
Samaritans – open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to listen to anything that's upsetting you.
SANEline – support for people experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else.
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – support for anyone who wants to talk.
Alternatively, you may wish to join a support group where you can share your experience with others who know what it's like to have SAD. This can be very therapeutic and make your symptoms more bearable.
If your mood does not seem to lift with these strategies, your GP can advise you on the range of talking therapies that are available to help with ongoing mental health difficulties.