What if instead, you feel a sense of dread, loneliness, stress or sadness? Maybe you're finding it hard to motivate yourself during the dark winter days? Or your feeling constantly tired. Perhaps your New Year's resolutions have already proved challenging? I don't want to be a gloomy voice but unfortunately this is the reality for many people in the winter season.
In the UK, where we have large changes in seasonal weather with winters that are cold and dark, people notice seasonal changes in their mood and energy. For some, these changes are mild and usually occur between December and February disappearing in the spring and summer, although they may return each winter in a repetitive pattern.
This experience is often referred to as the ‘winter blues’ or, in more severe cases, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The winter blues are very common and can be thought of as a natural part of living in a climate with large seasonal variations. Many people don't feel they need direct treatment for the 'winter blues' while others struggle with the impact on their mood and motivation. Wherever you are on that continuum, I have some suggestions for managing the winter blues to help you to get through the season.
What are the most common symptoms of the winter blues?
- Feelings of hopelessness and sadness, irritability
- Fatigue and a tendency to oversleep
- Changes in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods, and weight gain
- A drop in energy level and decreased physical activity
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of social situations
What causes the winter blues?
The exact causes are still unclear but there are several theories that suggest why some people experience these symptoms:
Changes in daylight
When light hits the back of the eye, messages are passed to the part of the brain that controls sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there’s not enough light, these functions may slow down. You can think of these functions as solar powered needing the light and warmth of the sun for re-charging.
Low serotonin levels
Serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression.
High melatonin levels
When it’s dark, the brain produces the hormone melatonin which makes us sleep. When it becomes light again, it stops producing melatonin and we wake up. Some studies have found that people who experience the winter blues have much higher levels of melatonin in winter than other people. Interestingly, this hormonal process is also what happens to animals when they hibernate.
Other possible triggers
- an unwelcome or traumatic event, such as a bereavement or an assault
- physical illness or chronic pain
- a change in diet or medication
- people who have previously lived in a sunnier climate and then moved to the UK
- some people may be more vulnerable to the winter blues as a result of their genes
Taking better care of yourself
There are many ways we can self-care to minimise the impact of the seasons:
Make the most of natural light - expose yourself to natural light, even small changes can make a difference - like going outdoors around midday or on bright wearing sunglasses a bit less and maybe even consider swapping your summer holiday for winter sun!
Manage stress - plan more stressful events for summer, like changing jobs or moving home and try to make more spare time to relax and do pleasant activities in the. It might help to take advantage of the times when you feel well in summer to prepare for the winter – for example, buying Christmas presents early or stocking up your kitchen cupboards.
Socialise with family and friends - It might feel more appealing to stay inside in the warm but once you’ve got yourself out to see people it can brighten your day.
Exercise and eat well - physical activity is very effective in lifting your mood and increasing energy levels - doing housework, gardening or going for a gentle walk, if you are able to, can all help. Doing something physical outside in a green space has been shown to be especially helpful. A healthy diet is also important, try to balance cravings for carbohydrates with fresh fruit and vegetables.
How might talking therapy help?
Talking therapies can be extremely useful in helping people to improve their quality of life alongside the winter blues. Talking therapy can also help you recognise and deal with other factors that may be contributing to your symptoms.
There are many studies that demonstrate how cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a highly successful method of treatment for SAD. One report found that just 7% of sufferers treated with CBT had a reoccurrence of symptoms compared to almost 37% of those treated with light therapy. CBT involves exploring the way you think (cognitive) and the way you respond to certain thoughts (behaviour) that have a negative effect on your mood. CBT (or any other form of therapy) will involve a number of sessions with a qualified therapist who will create an individual treatment plan tailored to your needs.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend that SAD be treated in the same way as depression, which may involve talking therapy and/or medication. NICE recommendations say patients should be aware that there is no substantiated evidence for light therapy's effectiveness in the long term, however it does no harm and can be used as a complementary therapy.
When to see your GP
If you find you cannot manage the winter blues yourself or if it is having a significant impact on your day-to-day life, you might find it helpful to talk to your GP. They will be able to give you further information and discuss treatment options with you.
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