Currently I am having a few days for writing in Robe, SA. It is wintry here, and the forecast for the next few days is cold and windy. So winter is certainly still with us. It can be a challenging time of year for many; not just because of the cold weather and rain, but also our mood and general sense of well-being can be affected due to the effects Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – commonly called the ‘winter blues’.
Over the winter months we may not get adequate time in the sun due to shorter days, and the simple fact we want to stay indoors to avoid the harsh wintry weather. This is thought to be the main cause of SAD and as a result, we may find ourselves wanting to sleep for longer, feeling a general sense of lethargy and finding that our mood is lower than usual – in turn contributing to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Luckily, spring is not too far away and with daylight hours increasing many people struggling towards the end of winter will hopefully feel better with each day. In this blog, I will go through the some background information about SAD, and suggest some lifestyle/home remedies that can assist in lifting our mood during winter. I hope you find it helpful if the winter blues affects you, or if you just want to feel more healthy and positive in winter!
What causes SAD/who is likely to be affected?
There are geographical and biological factors that can leave us not feeling our best during winter. These in turn can influence us to develop poor lifestyle habits that may worsen the uncomfortable symptoms i.e. avoiding exercise, staying cooped up indoors and eating foods high in sugar.
The shorter days and reduced level of sunlight can disrupt our body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm), and cause a drop in serotonin and melatonin levels, chemicals in the body that are important for our well-being and sleep hygiene.
Where we live in relation to the equator can also influence our mood with those living far north or south are likely to be more affected by SAD. Teenagers, young adults, shift workers and persons who have a history of clinical anxiety and depression are at also a higher risk.
Do any of these symptoms of SAD resonate with you?:
Some symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD may include:
· An increase of general worries and anxiety
· Loss of motivation and interest in activities you once enjoyed
· Having difficulty concentrating
· Fatigue and heavy feeling in muscles
· Oversleeping and/or disrupted sleeping patterns
· Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in sugar and caffeinated beverages
· Weight gain
· Feeling hopeless
· Increased anxiety and/or depression
Ways to reduce the symptoms of SAD, and to feel more healthy and positive through winter:
There are a number of simple lifestyle/home remedies we can include in our day to help us feel more positive during winter. Here are some of them:
1. Get outside: When your body is craving more daylight, taking yourself for a walk and spending time outside can improve focus, reduce symptoms of SAD, and lower stress levels. When you’re inside, opening the blinds and sitting closer to windows can also help provide an extra dose of sunshine. You may want to explore light therapy as well. Flinders University in SA has done research in this area – check out www.re-timer.com
2. Eat healthily: Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, foods high in iron, protein and Vitamin D. Foods high in sugar may temporarily relieve SAD symptoms, but can make us feel worse in the long run. It is easy to become dehydrated in winter sitting in front of the heater, so keeping up fluid intake is important. Drinking too much tea, coffee and soft drinks will also lead to feeling dehydrated.
3. Exercise: A 2005 study from Harvard University suggests walking fast for about 35 minutes a day five times a week or 60 minutes a day three times a week improved symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Exercise releases endorphins and while it can be difficult at times in winter to get off the couch, the positive benefits will make the effort worth your while.
4. Enjoy hygge: This is a Danish word related to getting cosy in winter – imagine having a warm drink, reading a good book, in front of the fire – and simply enjoying the feeling of being comfortable and cosy. Sometimes this is the only thing to do when it is blustering outside! Think too about nurturing yourself with a warm bath, or a massage.
5. Spend time with people you love. It is tempting to stay indoors and isolate ourselves from friends and family during the colder months. Saying yes to social events may not be as appealing as a night in on the couch, but maintaining a healthy social life is important as good social support can act as a buffer against stress, and provide enjoyment and fun. Social supports are key to resilience and positivity.
6. Be in the moment – practise mindfulness: Mindfulness refers to paying attention in the present moment, on purpose and non-judgmentally. When we are mindful we feel relaxed and are less likely to worry about the past or the future. You can be mindful of what you eat or drink, or be mindful under the shower, out walking or even doing chores! Or try some mindfulness recordings or apps. Being mindful helps you savour each moment in life too.
7. Listen to music/have a laugh. Research shows that listening to music we love can significantly improve our moods in both the long and short term. The simple act of listening to music can increase chemicals in the brain which lift mood (e.g. dopamine). Even better – take some time out during the day to dance to your favourite tunes! Use humour regularly e.g. have a joke and a laugh, watch a funny movie, and try to see the funny side of a situation. Humour helps us relax and feel more positive. Even a smile has an effect – smile as you wander down the street, or even at yourself in the mirror!
8. Set some small goals: Even in winter we can set some goals for ourselves. These might relate to getting some regular exercise, or eating more fruit and vegetables. Always break a goal down into smaller steps, and don’t give yourself a hard time if you wander off track, just gently bring yourself back to working towards the goal. This process is rewarding, and actually triggers a ‘seek and find’ reflex in our brains, which helps lift mood.
9. Plan a holiday (maybe somewhere in the sun). The simple act of planning a holiday causes a significant increase in overall happiness.
10. Help others: Maybe help your family or a neighbour. Ladling out soup at the local shelter or volunteering your time can improve mental health and life satisfaction.
Winter can be a challenging time of year for many, not just with the cold weather but our mood can drop dramatically due the affects of SAD. In this blog we have looked at the causes and symptoms of SAD, as well as simple lifestyle and home remedies that can help us to feel more positive. If you or someone you know is struggling, speak to your GP/health professional as it may be necessary to implement some psychological strategies, or possibly introduce some supplements or medication to assist.
Take care until next time, and I am going to make a hot peppermint tea now!
[Thank you Alex for researching this blog.]
20 Habits That Make You Miserable Every Winter. Sarah Amandolare,
Last modified 2015. http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20965961,00.html#cranking-up-the-heat-0
8 Scientifically-Backed Ways to Beat the Winter Blues. Brigitt Hauck. Last modified 2016. https://www.realsimple.com/health/mind-mood/emotional-health/winter-blues
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Mayo Clinic Staff. Last modified 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/treatment/con-20021047
 8 Scientifically-Backed Ways to Beat the Winter Blues, Brigitt Hauck, Last modified 2016, https://www.realsimple.com/health/mind-mood/emotional-health/winter-blues