January is thought to be the most depressing month of the year and has often been referred to as ‘the Monday of months.’ After a month of fun, food and gifts, January is back to reality and the full cost of Christmas and debts to repay can become problematic for many. The cold temperatures and broken New Year’s resolutions don’t help either so it is no surprise January can take its toll on our mental health.
It's thought that the winter blues, also referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), affects around 2 million people across the UK. It can affect anyone of any age, including children. It is worth noting that even though they’re referred to in the same way, SAD is more extreme than the winter blues and can affect someone’s day to day functioning. It is therefore crucial to seek professional help if sadness starts to interfere with your life.
The exact cause is still unknown, but it’s thought to be caused by reduced sunlight and its ability to affect a part of the brain called the hypothalamus from working properly. This can influence the levels of certain hormones. It can decrease our serotonin levels (the happy hormone), which in turn affects our mood, motivation, and it can also decrease the production of melatonin which can affect our sleep. Symptoms are similar to that of depression and include persistent low mood, lethargy, and irritability.
The good news is that there are plenty of tips that can help to combat the winter blues, as well as treatments depending on the severity of the symptoms.
Any form of exercise has been proven to reduce stress, boost mood and decrease symptoms of depression. Aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga, and team sport are all great examples. If you’re not one for anyone of these, research has shown that a one hour walk in the middle of the day could be as helpful as light therapy for coping with the winter blues.
Go outside in natural daylight as much as possible, especially at midday and on brighter days. Increasing vitamin d levels can lead to an improved emotional state so soaking up any winter sun is very important. If you can’t get outdoors, move a chair, work station, or kitchen table next to a window that gets sunlight.
Set Your Alarm Clock and Stick to a Sleep Routine
Tempting as it might be to sleep in on dark mornings, it’s best to stick with a regular sleep schedule. This means waking up at the same time on weekdays and weekends. Establish a routine wake-up time and a soothing bedtime ritual. Allow three or four weeks to get used to it. It’s important to get at least seven hours of sleep every night for your overall health.
Being cold makes you more depressed but by keeping warm you can reduce the winter blues by half. Keep warm with hot drinks and food. Wear warm clothes and shoes and aim to keep your home between 18c and 21c if you can.
Healthy Eating and Hydration
As tempting as it is to reach for comfort food, this won’t do any good for your mood if eaten in excess. A healthy diet will boost your mood, increase your energy levels, and help prevent you from gaining weight over the winter. Be sure to eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables as you would do in the summer. It is equally important to keep yourself hydrated and drink your 2 litres of water a day.
Some people find light therapy affective for seasonal depression. Light boxes give out light at least 10 times stronger than home or office lighting and it’s recommended you sit in front of one for up to 2 hours a day.
Take up a New Hobby
Keep your mind engaged and add some variety to your evenings by taking up a new hobby. This hobby can be practiced indoors, and examples include reading, cooking, sewing, or painting.
Make time for friends and family
Loneliness and isolation make the effects of the winter blues a whole lot worse. Socialising with your family and friends is proven to be good for your mental health. Try your best to keep in touch regularly with people who care about you and accept any social invitations where you can, even if it means just going for a little while.
Talk it Through
Talking treatments such as counselling, psychotherapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you cope with symptoms. Talk to you doctor about what services are available to you.
Join a Support Group
Talking to like minded people and sharing similar experiences can be very therapeutic, making symptoms more bearable. This is also a way to make new friends too.
If your symptoms are bad enough that your life has dramatically changed, make an appointment to see your doctor. Please remember you are not alone and are worthy of seeking help.
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