Feeling the winter blues? You’re not alone

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Opinion piece: Dr Jo Lane is a clinical psychologist and research fellow at the Research School of Population Health at the Australian National University. She is passionate about optimal brain health and quality of life and communication in science. This article was originally published in the Canberra Times on August 8 2021.

“I am so sick of the cold and hate how dark it is in the mornings and after work”

Sound familiar? I have heard this type of sentiment in recent conversations with many of my friends, family and colleagues. It seems many of us might be experiencing a dose of the winter blues. Our moods do change in relation to the seasons, and having a lower mood, experiencing fatigue, sleeping more, struggling to get motivated and the dreaded weight gain during the winter months can be associated with seasonal affective disorder otherwise known as SAD or winter depression.

"A combination of reduced sunlight and colder temperatures can lead most of us into a winter hibernation. And whilst that is great for bears, it is not so great for humans..."

Winter blues hits us because there is much less sunlight during the winter months. A combination of reduced sunlight and colder temperatures can lead most of us into a winter hibernation. And whilst that is great for bears, it is not so great for humans. During winter, we often reduce our social interactions (who wants to go out in the cold?), do less exercise (it’s too dark before and after work), eat more (because we are craving comfort food) and reduce our self-care (this might be relevant to you if you are having troubles choosing which tracksuit pants to wear, or, if your most worn outfit is an expensive oversized wearable blanket).

A lot of us have developed our own strategies to reduce the winter blues - known as the winter escape. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the winter escape sadly escapes us – perhaps now for the second year in a row. Our mood has also been impacted by the stress of COVID-19 during the last eighteen months or so.

For most people, increasing your exposure to sunlight can help with the winter blues. So as much as you can, get out into the sun, go for a morning or lunchtime walk or ride, sit on your balcony or see where your cat is sitting and negotiate with them the possibility of sharing that sunny, warm spot. Another option is light therapy, sitting in front of a light therapy box for twenty or more minutes often in the morning can help. Also, looking at photos of your favourite winter getaway or future planned destinations and imagine sitting on the beach with your favourite people and tropical cocktail or mocktail might be helpful.

In addition to getting more sunlight, the usual mood-boosters can help – you probably know what they are. Firstly, exercise is so important for improving our mood. So get back into your exercise routine, go for a walk or ride and get back into the gym (in-person or online). Often sharing your exercise plan with a friend can be useful for accountability. Secondly, diet is also really important for mood – avoid buying too much comfort food and fill your plate with healthy and less processed food. It is also important to stay connected and even though this can be hard with lockdowns, send a text, watch a movie online together, join a virtual choir – most of us are social creatures and feeling a sense of belonging is important for our mood. Finally, establish a routine – perhaps have a non-tracky day, get your sleep patterns back into shape and make a point of scheduling exercise and activities that bring you pleasure into your day.

If these strategies aren’t working and it is more than the winter blues, talk to a trusted friend and medical professional who can help with ways to keep your mood steady throughout every season.

The good news is every day the winter solstice gets further away and the summer solstice is getting closer. I even saw some blossoms the other day. Bring on warmer and lighter days.

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Updated:  6 October 2021/Responsible Officer:  Science Web/Page Contact:  Science Web