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You’ve probably noticed that everything seems harder in winter. The weather is miserable, and it gets dark early – we tend to spend more time indoors, socialising less and are often less productive. You could find that you have less energy, not to mention more irritability.
The question is, why does our mental and physical health suffer in winter? We sometimes refer to this slump as the winter blues, but it could be a more serious thing. For instance, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression, which impacts people in the winter. According to the NHS, around 2 million people across the UK are affected by SAD each year. Symptoms include stress, anxiety, lethargy, and the inability to concentrate.
As you can imagine, it can be hard to diagnose SAD – for some individuals, the symptoms are mild, while for others, it can be fairly debilitating. Anyone who believes that they could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder should seek advice from their GP.
There are lots of other things you can try too, in order to help yourself feel better during the winter months. We’ve looked at a few ways to maintain your mental health in winter below:
Getting a good night’s sleep is a great way to maintain your mental health. Not having enough rest can lead to things like depression, and other mental health issues. In the winter though, because there is less daylight, our circadian rhythms can get thrown off. This means our body’s natural clock has difficulty knowing when we need sleep. We therefore need to get into a good sleep routine.
Of course sleeping well is not always as easy as going to bed at a decent time – lots of people have difficulty falling asleep, or wake up often in the night. But there are things you can do to help yourself get a decent night’s rest. For example, you can avoid looking at electronic devices just before bed, as well as stop drinking caffeine several hours before you want to sleep. Routine and consistency are usually the best things for healthy sleep, so try going to bed at the same time each night, and set your alarm for the same time every morning.
While it’s rarely fun to go out for a walk when it’s tipping down with rain, there are bound to be some days in the winter that offer the chance to soak up some Vitamin D! Getting outside and exercising is a sensible thing to do, especially in winter, where your mood may already be affected. Exercising in general is believed to be helpful for your mental health, from improving your general mood through endorphins, to helping you sleep better at night.
And if you’d rather not leave your home, there are lots of creative ways to exercise indoors. You could consider joining a virtual class, or following along with a YouTube tutorial. Perhaps invite a friend over, and you can exercise together.
Practising meditation, as well as mindfulness, have been shown to improve your mental health, decreasing the risks of anxiety and depression. Both of these things allow you an opportunity to relax your mind, clearing it of the stresses of each day.
If you’re not sure where to start, when it comes to meditation or mindfulness, there are lots of resources available. You can undoubtedly find guided meditation videos on YouTube, and there are also a variety of apps and podcasts that can help you. Bear in mind that meditation doesn’t have to be a formal process either – it can simply be a conscious decision to check in with your mind and body.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we crave interaction with others. Seeing friends and family is essential to maintaining our mental health, online if not in person. We often prefer to stay cosy at home during the winter, but this doesn’t have to mean avoiding our support systems! Invite loved ones over, or visit them at their houses. You don’t need to venture far to stay connected.
You may even want to try and form new friendships, that will help you get out of the house and socialise. Perhaps join a book club, or a sports group. The latter, or joining a gym, will have the added benefit of exercise, which can also be good for your mental health.
When you feel a bit low, it’s often tempting to turn to comfort foods. These will usually be things that are bad for you, and won’t always be at regular meal times. This type of eating can also be referred to as ‘emotional eating’. Essentially, it creates a false sense of happiness, which is always temporary. Over time, emotional eating can lead to weight gain, not to mention feelings of guilt and shame. This can in turn damage your mental health.
Another thing to bear in mind with comfort eating is that, if you’re avoiding foods with nutritional value, this can impact your mood. For example, not getting enough vitamin B may lead to feelings of irritability, or even depression. A lack of iron can furthermore make you feel incredibly tired. You should therefore strive to keep to a balanced diet, even in the winter months, ensuring that your mood and mental health don’t suffer unduly.
As mentioned above, if you do feel that your mental health suffers more in the winter, and you could have SAD, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor. There are also many other organisations you can approach, which can help with your mental health. It doesn’t have to be an emergency – if you need any support, there are lots of free services that are available.
For example, Samaritans are there to talk any time of the day. They can be reached on 116 123, or by emailing [email protected]. Texting SHOUT to 85258 is also an option if you’d prefer not to speak on the phone – Shout offers confidential support if you’re in a crisis. And if you’re looking for a more specialist service, you can check out the Helplines Partnership’s directory of UK helplines.
Mind, a charity which provides advice and support to people experiencing any form of mental health problems, additionally has a lot of helpful things on their website. This includes guidance, support, and information on various topics.