This morning I got up earlier than usual as I wanted to get a few things done before heading to do some work at the university. It was still quite dark as sunrise was not until 7.43am today and I switched on a little set of battery-operated candles I’ve recently bought (a bargain at £7.99 for three at various heights and including batteries from Festive Lights Store on Amazon) to bring some gentle light into the bedroom. They’re dinky enough to have on my bedside cabinet so are within easy reach – no having to pull back the duvet for me!
Although I’d enjoyed a good night’s sleep and managed to rouse myself pretty easily, I’ve noticed that I don’t jump out of bed raring to go like I did during the spring and summer months. I think many of us will acknowledge that we find it more difficult to get out of bed on dark mornings and, depending on our occupations or daily schedules we might also find that the lack of exposure to natural daylight during the autumn / winter months can dampen our mood somewhat. Even if we haven’t been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short, rather aptly), most of us will agree that limited sunlight has some sort of effect on our health and wellbeing. In today’s blog post, I want to share some practical tips for combating what I’m going to call the ‘winter blues’ and the associated symptoms which may be present at this time of year and continue until springtime.
Signs of the winter blues
The symptoms of ‘winter blues’ will generally be quite mild. They may have an impact on your life, to a small extent, but should not make your days feel like a constant struggle. Please seek medical advice if you are displaying many of the signs of depression as you may need professional help. Signs of ‘winter blues’ which are commonly experienced by individuals include:
- being less active than usual
- sleeping for longer and still struggling to get up in the morning
- showing signs of lethargy – lacking energy and feeling sleepy during the day
- having poorer concentration skills than usual (you might be easily distracted, tasks might take you much longer to complete or you might find them more difficult, you might also struggle to attentively listen to someone when they’re talking or not fully comprehend what they’re saying)
- having an increased appetite (often craving carbohydrates such as cakes, sweets and biscuits) which may cause weight gain
- finding yourself wanting more stimulating drinks such as coffee or energy drinks because you feel like you need a caffeine boost
- being less enthusiastic about activities you usually enjoy
- rejecting social invitations (e.g. due to lack of energy or your body telling you that you need to stay at home and chillax. Some people will say they like to hibernate for the winter!)
What’s the difference between Winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- not a clinical diagnosis
- a mental state which comprises of feelings of sadness and lower energy levels during the coldest and darkest months of the year (when compared to the lighter, brighter, warmer and sunnier months)
- doesn’t have much impact on day-to-day functioning (you can still carry out usual tasks or you can go to work or school as normal)
- generally happens in the winter time and possibly some of autumn too
- can be managed by making a few lifestyle changes such as those suggested below
- a clinical diagnosis made by a medical professional such as your GP or your psychiatrist
- affects day-to-day functioning and can make life a struggle usually during the autumn and winter months but can also occur in the summertime – S.A.D. has a seasonal pattern of some sort
- takes its toll on many aspects of life including relationships, work, school or home life, sense of worth and sleep patterns
- sometimes referred to as ‘winter depression’
- requires professional help such as a talking therapy or medication such as anti-depressants
Practical tips to help you cope with the winter blues
Try to stay active Exercise is known to boost your mood so it’s important to stay active even if you feel like curling up under a blanket or sitting in front of the fire for the day. Doing a workout each day will also help to improve your energy levels during the daytime and make you tired in the evening so you can enjoy a better night’s sleep. This could be a 15-30 minute walk, a gym class such as Zumba, spinning or flow yoga or a home-based exercise such as following a routine on YouTube. Anything which gets your heart pumping is good. You could even put on some music and dance around the room!
Get outside Going out for some fresh air, especially on bright days can help you get more light. Taking a walk in nature e.g. in woodland or your local park can be particularly mood boosting. I like to look for signs of autumn or winter such as changing leaves, glistening spiders webs, amazing fungi, conkers acorns and beech nut shells, wildlife such as jays, squirrels and nuthatches, brightly coloured berries, morning frosts, snowfall, icicles, early flowers such as snowdrops and crocuses. Just make sure you wrap up really warm on particularly cold days – remember there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing!
Eat healthily At this time of year, it can be tempting to comfort eat high calorie, sugary or fatty foods to give yourself a quick energy boost or to try to make yourself feel better in some way. Most of us crave carbs during the colder months and this often takes the form of junk foods, fatty snacks such as crisps, biscuits and cakes or high volumes of less healthy ‘white’ foodstuffs such as white bread, white pasta, white rice and white potatoes. However, it’s always important to try to maintain a balanced diet for a healthy body and mind (including stable mood). You can still eat foods which are high in carbohydrates but make sure they’re ones which are better for you. Examples of foods which are more healthy but also carb rich include quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, pulses such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas, wholegrain oats, bananas, sweet potatoes, squashes, apples, carrots, broccoli and avocado.
During the autumn and winter seasons, we love to create homemade soups, stews, risottos and vegetable bakes. We also create lots of dishes with pulses such as lentils, beans and chickpeas. These are also comforting and warming foods but without a high calorie content. If we find recipes online, we tend to modify them in some way, so I type them out with the changes we made and add them to our recipe folder. We’ve found some really great veggie and vegan dishes this Autumn and most of them are pretty quick to make.
Keep yourself warm Research shows that feeling cold (and wet if you get caught in the rain) can cause your mood to dip so it’s important to try to keep yourself warm and cosy. With the current increasing energy prices, I appreciate that you might feel that this is very difficult and expensive at the moment. Try to make good use of blankets in the home and, when you can, get yourself moving to generate some heat in your body. I tend to get really cold when I’m sat at my laptop for long periods of time and in the past, I’ve resorted to a small heater but now I’m trying to remember to get up and move about at regular intervals. When you go outside, add lots of layers, hats, scarfs and gloves. You can also get thermal tops and leggings to wear under your clothes. I got mine from an outdoor clothing shop and they’re great for really cold days when I’m going to be outside for long periods of time.
Stay social It might be tempting to stay at home all the time during the dark and cold months but isolation isn’t good for your mental health. Why not meet a friend at a cafe and enjoy an autumn or winter special drink such as a Pumpkin spice latte, Apple crisp macchiato, Caramel apple spice, Peppermint Mocha, Gingerbread latte or Black Forest Hot chocolate? Or how about arranging a meal out in a traditional pub with homecooked food and maybe even an open fire? Try to say yes to some of the events you are invited to, even if you don’t feel like going, you may find that you really enjoy it when you get there.
Try something new Trying out a new hobby or having a go at some autumn or winter crafts can stimulate the mind, provide new and interesting challenges, give a really sense of achievement and boost your self-esteem and confidence. Mindful activities can also be great for relieving stress, reducing negative self-talk and generally creating a more positive mindset. I picked up a winter fox mini cross stitch kit and a ‘make your own reindeer’ felt sewing kit at Hobbycraft last week for less than £7 and they’ll keep me busy for hours. Also, when I’ve finished them, I can add them to my Christmas displays each year and remember what fun I had making them. There are lots of autumn and winter craft ideas on Pinterest too – why not create a board full of them and pick something different which requires minimal materials and will make a lovely display for your home or room?
I’m still working on developing my drawing and watercolour skills and something I want to try this year is sketching and painting different squashes. I’m then going to use the designs for my November theme. My husband and I have also enjoyed completing Christmas doodle challenges in the past too and we might give it a go again this year. I’m also doing December Daily for the second time – I’ve bought my album, page protectors and Christmas papers and stickers as well. In the new year, I’ll probably still have quite a bit of journalling to finish off and I’m hoping to finally get some of the jigsaws done which I’ve had for a while.
Boost your vitamin D levels Some of you will be aware that the biggest natural source of vitamin D is sunlight. It’s no surprise then, that our levels tend to dip in the darker autumn / winter months. Deficiency in this essential vitamin can cause fatigue, symptoms of depression and muscle pain so if you find yourself struggling with the winter blues, it’s important to find ways to raise your levels. When the weather allows, try to spend some time each day in the sunshine (about 30 minutes is good). This could mean going out for a walk, wrapping up and sitting in the garden to enjoy a tea or coffee, or working next to a brightly lit window at home or in the office. Eating foods which are rich in vitamin D can also help. Fatty fish and seafood are one of the best sources but if you’re vegetarian or vegan like my husband and I are, you’ll find most plant-based milk alternatives, orange juice, some vegetarian or vegan yogurts, many ready-to-eat cereals and tofu are usually fortified with vitamin D. Finally, if you still think you could do with a top up, as a last resort, you could also take a vitamin D supplement, especially on dark and dismal days.
If after reading today’s post, you identify with many of the symptoms of S.A.D. in the link, I recommend seeking professional health from your GP (or psychiatrist if you are under a mental health team). As I explained earlier, Seasonal Affective Disorder can be quite severe and can seriously impact on your day-to-day functioning. Also, because it can occur from early autumn right through to the springtime, potentially it could last for over five months, which, as I know well myself, is a long time to be struggling with depression for.
For those of you that relate to the ‘winter blues’ symptoms, I hope you will consider trying out some of the self-management suggestions and that they help you to cope more effectively. If you have any further suggestions or have tried and tested methods that you personally use, it would be great if you could share them in the comments to support others who find this time of year a little challenging.