How to Beat the Winter Blues
You’ve probably heard of the phrase ‘the winter blues’ before. Many people can find themselves more likely to face depression or anxiety symptoms over the winter period and blame it on factors like the extra financial strain that Christmas brings, or simply the dark, cold mornings and wet drizzly days. You aren’t the only one wishing that you could stay at home, avoid the world and wait it out until the summer returns. But if you start acting on these feelings, it can often make the depression worse and last longer. These things can make living through the winter much harder, but there can be other less obvious causes.
Many people are unaware of a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder which is a form of depression that generally occurs around this time of year. Read on, if you want to understand more about the winter blues, and how you can overcome them. Understanding why the seasons affect your mood gives you the knowledge you need to tackle your depression and find more happiness throughout the winter period.
Why do people get the winter blues?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as the winter blues, is a form of depression that usually begins in late autumn or early winter. The symptoms generally remain until the weather improves and we start to enter spring. During this time people often feel depressed, irritable, lethargic and have trouble waking up in the morning.
Some people can have depression all year round which worsens in winter, while others suffer from SAD alone. There are even some cases, of a much smaller group of people, who have depression only in the summer months.
The winter blues were first identified by a team of researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1984 as ‘winter depression’. The team found that the participants’ moods were affected, and the outcome varied greatly; from mild to severe depression.
What are the common factors?
So, what brings on your seasonal depression? The biggest factor is the cold weather and darker nights which have a huge impact on your mental health. A biochemical imbalance is brought on by the shortening of daylight hours and lack of sunlight in winter. Light is needed to produce cholecalciferol which the body turns into Vitamin D, which helps to maintain a healthy level of serotonin. However, with decreased light, this can’t happen, and so the production of serotonin (the hormone associated with wakefulness and elevated mood) is reduced during winter.
With a decreased mood and colder nights, people can often find it hard to exercise or lack the motivation. Exercise boosts the production of endorphins within the body, which interacts with the receptors in your brain and reduces people’s perception of pain. They also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to morphine, which gives the hormone its nickname – ‘the happy hormone’. So, without exercise, the level of endorphins within the body is decreased, making it harder for people to find moments of improved happiness until they begin to exercise again. Exercise can also be hard as daily body rhythms become out-of-sync because of the reduced sunlight. People find themselves feeling more tired, lacking proper sleep and too drained to get out of bed, let alone exercise.
How do I overcome it?
You might have thought waiting the winter blues out was the only way to cope with it, but you are wrong. Don’t bunker down in your bedroom and try to sleep the winter away. Instead, listen to my advice and work to overcome your seasonal depression.
Make your environment brighter
Our bodies crave light, and without it, we can face symptoms of depression. Sitting next to artificial light (a lightbox) for 30 minutes a day can be just as effective for a person as antidepressant medication. This can be the perfect time to reflect on your mental health, using these 30 minutes to lie back and go through your thoughts and feelings of the day.
During the day you can let more light into your life. Open all your curtains and blinds during the small hours of daylight. If you have trees that block light from getting into your house, then cut some branches back. Even try sitting close to the windows when working, reading, relaxing or watching TV to take in as much sunlight as possible.
Go outside more
Walking to work or the shops can be much harder in winter when the temperature starts to plummet. You may find yourself driving more, ordering online or avoiding going out for your usual daily walks. But it shouldn’t be like this. Spending time outside has so many benefits such as improving our focus, reducing symptoms of SAD and lowering our stress levels.
Treat yourself to a new coat or scarf to help motivate you to get outside more. If you have a dog, try to take them on a daily walk and make it part of your schedule. If you have young children or a partner, try to look for exciting new places to go on a family walk. Playing with your family or even talking to your partner about your worries can both eliminate stress and promote endorphins.
Try to exercise
A Harvard University study suggested that walking fast for 35 minutes a day five times a week improves the symptoms of depression in both mild and moderate cases. If you don’t have the time for this, the study also found similar results for 60 minutes of walking three times a week.
A further preliminary study found that exercising under bright lights (like at a gym) can be even better for seasonal depression. The combination of bright lights and exercise improved general mental health, social functioning, depressive symptoms and vitality.
Eat better and smarter
Often when facing SAD, many people find themselves eating comfort food in an attempt to improve their mood. If you get into this habit, you will eventually put on weight, and this can cause further depression that might last throughout the future seasons. Avoid this by maintaining a healthy diet that can both improve your physical and mental health.
Eating a healthy diet doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself every now and then. Chocolate can be eaten to help enhance your mood and relieve anxiety. Eating a little piece each day can help you to regulate your mood. Dark chocolate is even better as it is healthier than milk and white chocolate. This is a much better alternative to candy and carbohydrates which provide temporary feelings of euphoria and happiness but can cause you to ‘crash’ and lead to depression and anxiety.
Go to therapy
People who suffer from depression and feel that their symptoms worsen during the winter may find help in therapy. Talking about the underlying issues that cause you to stress and worry can help to alleviate some of the symptoms and prevent your depression from worsening. If you talk about your feelings more regularly with a professional, you can gain knowledgeable advice that leaves you able to overcome your situation and merely face the biological factors of your depression such as the lack of light.
This can also be very helpful for people who suffer from SAD or simply don’t feel very happy with their life. Issues such as the increasing bills, family feuds, and the rising cost of Christmas can often leave people feeling worried and depressed. By talking to a counsellor about this, or any other issues that crop up over the season, you can prevent yourself from falling deeper into depression and actually start to pull yourself towards the metaphorical light.
Seasonal depression can affect many people, but you don’t have to face your winter blues alone. Counsellors have the knowledge and experience needed to help you to understand what you feel and why. If you would be interested in speaking to a counsellor, then contact me today for more information on how I can help you.