No, not 'The Blues'; I mean "winter blues," a term often used to describe a general feeling of sadness or lethargy that coincides with the winter months. Coupled with other life stressors, it can form a formidable barrier to wellbeing during this time. The good news is that staying active can combat these winter-induced mood swings. Before diving into solutions, it's essential to understand why we can be affected by the changing seasons.
Reduced Sunlight: The shorter days mean less exposure to sunlight, which can disrupt our internal body clock or circadian rhythm. This disruption can lead to feeling low.
Lower Levels of Serotonin: The reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that influences mood.
Increase in Melatonin Levels: The darkness increases the production of melatonin, which regulates sleep. More melatonin can make you feel sleepier and more lethargic.
Acknowledging other stressors is also important. Cold weather and fewer daylight hours can make everyday tasks more challenging and isolation more prevalent. Often, it is convenient to apportion blame on the time of year and avoid contextual stressors such as financial strain, family dynamics, relationships, illness, etc.
When talking about stress, it is vital to acknowledge that many stressors are not within our direct control. When discussing stress, it can be all too easy to offer solutions or imply that all stress is controllable. This clearly is not the case! Amidst the external factors contributing to stress, acceptance and self-management are crucial. Integrating self-care into our routine also fortifies our resilience and capability to handle stress.
So, back to the good news. When considering winter blues and stress, the interventions are the same. Within our control is how we look after ourselves and practice effective self-care.
Keep Active: engaging in physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, our body's natural mood elevators. These brain chemicals act as natural painkillers and can produce feelings of euphoria. Exercise can help recalibrate our body's internal clock, particularly if done outdoors. Morning exercises can be beneficial, as exposure to natural light can help set our circadian rhythms and improve mood. Even though it might seem counterintuitive, moving our bodies can combat feelings of fatigue; the human body is a 'generator', not a 'battery'. It requires movement to turn fuel (fats and sugars) into energy.
Exercise is a known stress reliever. It helps reduce levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol and stimulates the production of endorphins, which act as natural stress fighters. Furthermore, regular physical activity can promote better sleep by helping you fall asleep faster and deepen your sleep.
Understandably, we may exercise indoors more during the dark months, and if it's too cold or dark outside, there are plenty of indoor activities to choose from. Join a local gym, attend a dance class, or use stairs for a quick workout. During the restrictions of Covid, we all had to find ways to stay active while confined to our homes. But during winter months, building outdoor activity has additional benefits.
One of the primary causes of winter blues (and the more severe Seasonal Affective Disorder) is reduced exposure to sunlight. Even on cloudy days, outdoor activities expose you to natural light, which can help regulate circadian rhythms and boost mood. Furthermore, sunlight is a natural source of Vitamin D. Regular exposure, even for short durations, can help boost Vitamin D levels, vital in mood regulation and overall health.
Being in nature, whether in a park, a forest, or just a green space in your neighbourhood, can have therapeutic effects on the mind. The natural environment has been linked to decreased anxiety levels, enhanced wellbeing, and improved cognitive function.
Getting out for exercise also enables connecting with others. Winter can often lead to social hibernation. Connecting with others and maintaining social ties is essential for mental health and can serve as a buffer against stress.
Finally, although often used interchangeably, the winter blues and SAD have distinct characteristics. Winter Blues is characterised by mild, short-term seasonal mood changes. Individuals with winter blues may experience sadness, reduced energy, increased sleep and food cravings.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subtype of major depression with a recurring seasonal pattern. It has more pronounced symptoms, including deep sadness, loss of interest in activities, appetite and weight changes, and feelings of worthlessness. Recognising the differences between the winter blues and SAD is crucial for appropriate management and treatment. If you or someone you know struggles with persistent feelings of sadness, lethargy, or other symptoms during specific seasons, it's essential to seek professional advice. Proper diagnosis ensures that individuals receive support and interventions.
Space to Talk is committed to offering support during the challenging winter months. Our walk & talks are undeterred by weather conditions. Additionally, we host various events throughout the winter, providing opportunities to try new things or to socialise and chat. Our autumn and winter schedule is available here, and we encourage you to revisit it often, as we regularly update it with new activities and events.