As the days get shorter and the skies get greyer, it is not uncommon for as much as 20% of the population of the Northern Hemisphere to experience the ‘Winter Blues’. This common phenomenon can result in drops in enthusiasm and motivation, lowered mood and a rise in general lethargy.
It is reported that, in general, the darkness, damp and grey of winter makes a lot of people feel worse than the cold weather itself. For some, the ‘Winter Blues’ can interfere in a more significant and life limiting way (including deep and prolonged depression). When this happens, it is highly possible that the person involved may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms can show as a prolonged state of depression, including significantly increased lethargy, greatly lowered interest in previously fun activities, and in some cases increased cravings for carbohydrates. SAD occurs during the winter months, and unlike other forms of affective disorders, it usually disappears after the end of winter. It is found more commonly in women than men.
Winter Blues and SAD
It is still not possible to prove 100% why the Winter Blues affects us, nor why it affects some of us and not others. There is some thinking that to some extent it is part of our instinctual behaviour, designed to ‘keep us safe’ during the rougher weather of the winter (ie, the desire to be indoors and lethargic would have kept us ‘safer’ during the darker ‘riskier’ times of the far distant past).
It is strongly suggested that the Winter Blues occurs due to the decreased amount, and lowered intensity, of sunlight during winter. It’s made worse by the type of weather that discourages outside activity. We retreat indoors away from the elements, and as a result, we can also get a lot less exercise. These two factors combined can make up a recipe for not feeling quite so good overall.
The shorter daylight hours and the decrease in the sun’s intensity over the winter months can affect several critical systems in the body. Natural, intense sunlight regulates our circadian rhythm. During a day in the spring, summer, or early autumn, as sunlight waxes and wanes during the day, the brain’s hypothalamus releases differing amounts of the hormone melatonin.
Melatonin affects how alert we are in reference to our waking and sleeping balance. When the Winter Blues occurs, it is possible that our body gets confused because low levels of sunlight have excessively decreased the amount of melatonin present in the brain. Paradoxically, disturbed levels of melatonin can also cause too much sleep or too little sleep, which in turns has a further negative effect. .
What are the main signs that you might be suffering the Winter Blues?
- Depressed mood generally – loss of motivation or enthusiasm
- Weight gain that isn’t due to water retention
- General fatigue or localised aches without specific cause
- Change in appetite with increased carbohydrate, starch and sugar cravings
- Drowsiness during the day or disturbance to normal sleep patterns
- Difficulty concentrating, impaired memory or ‘brain fog’
- Decrease in sex drive
- Increased anxiety or irritability
- Anhedonia (loss of interest in the activities you used to enjoy)
- Lack of desire to interact with others or socialise
- Feelings of frustration, hopelessness or even guilt
Please note that if you suffer many of these in winter and not in summer, or if any of these become extreme or life limiting, then you should seek help and support asap - visit your GP, look for support groups locally or online, talk with a therapist or your friends, family and support network.
What can you do to help overcome the Winter Blues and have a happy winter?
1. VITAMIN D
Increase your intake of Vitamin D, especially Vitamin D3. This is believed to be more effective in supporting you against the symptoms of the Winter Blues than Vitamin D2, which is the most commonly prescribed general form of Vitamin D. Vitamin D3 is also used all throughout the brain and so can support your cognitive function. Bright sunlight triggers its production in our bodies, which is great during summer! However, Vitamin D supplements can really help to beat away the Winter Blues when the days are short and light is diminished.
2. LIGHT BOXES
The use of light boxes in winter is well documented as being supportive in staving off the Winter Blues and allowing the body to adjust its rhythm to the change in daylight. It is important to use a light box or lamp rated specifically for Winter Blues or SAD. Light therapy is used for many different conditions, and what works for one may not be effective for another. So it is important to ensure that the lamp you buy specifically advertises its use for SAD or winter blues. Light intensity is marked in lumens. A lamp for SAD needs 8,000 to 10,000 lumens, but don’t exceed 10,000 lumens. Bright light can be associated with eyestrain and headaches.
3. REDUCE CARBOHYDRATES AND SUGARS
People who are struggling with Winter Blues or SAD tend to crave carbohydrates, as well as simple sugars. While carbs and sugars do trigger a brief euphoria and cessation of symptoms, it doesn’t last long. However, it can lead to weight gain, which is then hard to shift and can also contribute to a downturn in overall confidence, mood and wellbeing.
You may or may not be a fan. Even if you are a fan, your motivation may have slumped if you are suffering the Winter Blues. It is proven that exercise releases endorphins in the body and these in turn generate positive feelings. So exercise is a great way to start to turn your Winter Blues around and relieve symptoms of SAD. You don’t have to enter a marathon, but a brisk walk of 30 minutes, three times a week, can produce a noticeable and very enjoyable difference.
5. INCREASE SOCIAL ACTIVITIES
If you have the Winter Blues, this may be an area of your life that is really suffering. You don’t have to accept every invitation to socialise, and you don’t have to go to parties you would have skipped any time of the year. However, making the extra effort to motivate yourself to go can have some really positive effects. If partying is really not your thing, then getting out with a friend once or twice a week for a low-stress coffee or walk can significantly reduce feelings of isolation.
6. CONSIDER A NEW HOBBY
Starting a new hobby shouldn’t cause you anxiety or worry. However, if you can push yourself through the motivation low to do this, the results are often great. You could also ask a friend to join you. This could be anything from a casual dance class to a pottery evening class, or even joining an online or local history or book club. Learning something new boosts our confidence and keeps our brains active. This can really help to turn the Winter Blues around and add some more zest to your life.
7. MAKE YOUR HOME A NEST
Making your home comfortable, relaxing and warm can be really helpful in making you feel more comfortable in yourself. Think about maybe adding a few lamps or candles, and finding ways to ensure you can relax and ‘nurture’ yourself at home over the winter. The only thing to look out for is that is doesn’t become so comfortable that it reduces your desire to go out and socialise.
8. REDUCE WORK STRESS WHERE POSSIBLE
Lowering stress at work is a topic for entire books. However, heading into winter, it is even more important than normal to consider whether or not you’re taking on too much. Are there any projects that you can throttle back on, could you manage your time better? Finding ways to do this will help you to manage your own energy better. As a result this will not contribute to any potential decrease in your motivation and enthusiasm levels.
9. REDUCE ALCOHOL INTAKE
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It is very easy to reach for a drink when you feel you need to ‘perk yourself up’ a bit. And there is no denying that it does produce a euphoric response initially (just like carbs). However, that response is usually short lived and the depressant effect that follows can contribute to anxiety, self-doubt and depressive symptoms. Managing alcohol intake, especially in winter, can really help to avoid the symptoms of the Winter Blues that it may trigger.
10. DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS
As well as Vitamin D (especially D3) as previously mentioned, several other supplements are definitely worth considering. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can help a depressed mood. Some people find small doses of melatonin helpful for sleep, and Vitamins B6 and B12 are necessary for good nerve function. Please just remember that before taking a supplement, it is recommended that you speak with your GP, especially if you’re taking any prescription medicines.
11. GETTING OUTSIDE
Going to the gym for exercise is great. However, just getting out of your home or office (when weather permits) can really help alleviate symptoms of the Winter Blues. Recent research has shown that finding a way to feel a sense of spatial openness can counteract the ‘claustrophobic’, enclosed feeling that some people experience during a bout of the Winter Blues. As well as this, any natural sunlight you can get will make a difference in mood as well.
12. BE KIND TO YOURSELF
You may feel listless, and like it’s a chore just to get through the day. You might really feel like all your enthusiasm has fled and start to beat yourself up for it (which can be a vicious cycle!). If you feel this behaviour creeping in, it is really important to stop! This is the most important moment to be kind to yourself. Try and find ways to nurture and nourish yourself when these moments happen. This could be anything from lighting a nice log fire and curling up with a good book, to making a nourishing meal, to booking a yoga session, or running a nice hot bath. Whatever makes you feel good, do it!
Breaking through the symptoms of the Winter Blues may feel overwhelming, especially when the main symptoms can be a lack of motivation and a sense of ‘psychological inertia’. Getting “unstuck” can make you feel a bit at odds with yourself, as if you’re forcing yourself to do something. That’s ok and all part of the process of overcoming the blues, so don’t give up!
A good mantra to remind yourself of is that ‘the days you least feel like doing it, are the days that you need to do it the most’. These are the days where you can really turn things around by putting into action some of the above tips. Keep going – wishing you all a good winter!
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