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By The Next Step

How to navigate the winter blues

5 min
Female student sat at desk with head in hand and serious look on face

Although T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’ begins with the words “April is the cruellest month”, the non-poets amongst us may disagree and plump for January or February instead.

For many of us, there is very little to recommend about the winter months. This is the very reason that Blue Monday exists at this time of year. The fun and festivities of the holidays are over, it’s cold and dark outside, and money is often short in supply too.

Where’s the fun in all that? It’s no wonder that people find their mood dipping around now.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as the ‘winter blues’, is at it’s most prevalent at this time of year, and it can make life difficult for those affected by it.

Its symptoms can present very similarly to depression – low mood, inability to motivate oneself and changes in sleeping and eating patterns. However, unlike clinical depression, the symptoms lessen as spring arrives and the days get lighter for longer.

Many animals hibernate during the winter when food is scarce and temperatures drop. As human beings, we don’t have the luxury of withdrawing from our daily lives until the weather gets better (wishful thinking, right?), but many of us do feel that we need to sleep more and that starchy, comfort foods are more attractive in the winter months.

So, we recognise the effects that winter has upon our mood and behaviour, but what can we do to help us stay that little more chipper in the winter? Read on to find out.

Make sleep a priority

It’s hard to perform at your best if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. Like the hibernating animals, we want more sleep at this time of year, so make sure your bedtime routine promotes that.

It’s a good idea to avoid screens for the hour or so before bed and to stop scrolling well in advance of when you want to go to sleep.

Also, keep your bedroom temperature cool as your body temperature drops during sleep. A cooler room (around 18°-19°C) can help you fall asleep quicker and stay asleep for longer.

Eat well

As tempting as it may be to eat ‘stodge’ when it’s cold outside, it’s better to make sure you eat a balanced diet during winter.

Eat plenty of seasonal fruits and vegetables and try to avoid ultra processed foods that are often higher in calories and lower in nutrients. Foods that are nourishing have a positive effect upon your mental health.

Reaching for nutritious foods can be easier said than done when you’re running a busy schedule and relying on convenience foods. Although it takes extra time and effort, try to plan and prepare your meals, ensuring you eat as much fresh food as possible.

Get active

We’re all aware that building exercise into your routine can have a positive effect on both your mental and physical health, but sometimes we need the reminder. It’s doesn’t have to be full-on cardio sessions, or 10k runs, but even a 10-minute brisk walk can be beneficial.

Remember that endorphins are released during exercise and can increase your sense of wellbeing. Exercise also provides a good way to blow away the cobwebs and make you feel more alert.

Sport and team games are a great way to increase activity levels as you get the benefit of spending time with others, particularly at university, as well as working your body. If that’s not for you, maybe try walking more, or riding a bike rather than using a car or bus for some journeys.

Get outdoors

Human beings have evolved to need to spend time outside in greenery and sunshine. We feel more positive when we’re outside on sunny days as it gives us a boost and helps us to feel more positive. That’s why crisp winter days when the sun is out make us feel better.

Sadly, those lovely winter days are often the exception rather than the norm. We spend a lot more time indoors under artificial lighting in the winter as the days are shorter. Our supplies of vitamin D (especially as we live in the northern hemisphere) are depleted, which may contribute to our feelings of tiredness.

Think about ways that you can get as much sunshine on your skin as possible and maybe consider taking a vitamin D supplement. The British Heart Foundation recommends taking a 40mg vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter months. However, you should take care not to exceed the recommended intake.

Do more things that bring you joy

This is an important one. We all need a bit of joy in our lives, so think of things that help you experience positive emotions. Positive emotions help to build up our psychological resources. Have a think about things you really enjoy doing, and do more of them!

You may enjoy painting and drawing, knitting, or even just scrolling through funny cat videos on social media. Whatever it is, prioritise it. Taking a break to do something that makes us laugh or feel better can help with productivity when we return to what we’ve been doing.

So, don’t feel guilty about taking some time out to do something you enjoy.

Look for meaning in your life

Find ways to become more engaged with your life and nurture positive relationships. Having good relationships is fundamental to overall wellbeing, so prioritise them.

Spend time with friends. If you can’t see them in person, call them and have a catch up. Remember that familial relationships need maintenance too. So, keep in touch with your nearest and dearest.

Finding meaning is also about increasing positive emotions and finding joy in the things you do. This is where hobbies and pastimes are important. As children we play all the time. We’re happy to try new things. However, as we grow up, our sense of adventure and willingness to seek new experiences can diminish.

If we can find activities that give us pleasure, we can become completely absorbed in them and achieve a sense of flow. Also known as ‘being in the zone’, flow has positive effects both emotionally and physically.

Research shows that the benefits of flow have wider positive effects than just the task itself, and can increase peoples’ wellbeing and general happiness.

You can also gain a sense of meaning from helping others. Volunteering at a food bank or even just helping a friend with something can increase your sense of meaning and wellbeing. Put simply, it does you good to do good for others.

So, while winter may try to rob you of motivation and joy, there are some steps you can take to make sure you regain them if they’re lost.

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