Winter can be a hard time for some. Short daylight hours, more time at home and indoors, less socialising, credit card bills from Christmas and cold, wet weather can be a recipe for seasonal depression that leaves people feeling flat and not their usual jolly selves.
As a former sufferer of the winter blues myself I fully understand how challenging this time of year can be. When I was in my early 20's I came to dread the winter season as it exasperated my chronic fatigue symptoms leaving me feeling more tired, clogged up and depressed. I hated it so much I would start worrying about it in early October and didn't feel I was out of the danger zone until my symptoms improved in May.
That's a lot of months of not feeling well!
If you can relate, you are not alone. In the UK the NHS estimates that about 1 in 15 people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) whilst in America the estimate of SAD is 6.1% , with a further 14.3% of the population citing a milder version. As you move further away from the equator, the incidence of SAD increases.
SAD/the winter blues and is thought to have one of 3 main causes:
Lower exposure to vitamin D producing light from shorter days, overcast weather and staying indoors more, which affects serotonin levels - one of our core happiness hormones.
Reduction in sleep-inducing melatonin by exposure to bright light in the evenings such as brightly lit homes and screen use (e.g. phones, computer screens and television).
Existing depression symptoms that become worse in winter when living is physically harder.
If your SAD is severe, then it is recommended you speak with a healthcare professional to devise a treatment plan, which may include checking and supplementing your vitamin D levels, purchasing a SAD lamp, a mood assessment and talk therapy.
Self-care recommendations for winter
Whether you experience the winter blues or not, there's some common sense approaches that can make this time of year a pleasant experience rather than a drain.
For starters, it's unrealistic to expect ourselves to feel the same way in winter as we do summer. There's no need to resist our bodies natural semi-hibernation tendencies at this time of year and instead embrace a winter survival mechanism that has served our ancestors well.
We may wish to naturally wake later and go to bed earlier
We may want to eat more to offset the cold weather and stay warm
We may have lower energy levels than in summer and need to manage our commitments accordingly
We may want to socialise less and stay at home more
We may lack enthusiasm for big projects in the same way we do in summer
We may feel less attracted to romantic partners (a natural mechanism to reduce conception)
We may feel like we're in limbo and nothing much is going on.
I cannot emphasise enough how normal this response to winter is! As a caretaker for animals I see them going through exactly the same process of sleeping more, eating more and staying in out of the bad weather!
So step 1 is to listen to your body and follow it's lead.
Step 2 is to find joy in winter. As each season is unique, challenge yourself to find things to love in winter that you can't do in summer. We need to actively do this because it's easy to dismiss winter as boring and dull, without giving this season the credit it deserves. For example, I love the cosy, firelit evenings snuggled up with loved ones, cups of hot chocolate or tea and winter casseroles and soups. All of these are a contrast to my summer behaviour and a chance to rest, nurture myself and rejuvenate.
Step 3, align yourself with nature. Even when it seems everything has gone to sleep in nature, challenge yourself to look closer and you'll realise it hasn't! Snap a tree twig and you'll see it's green and very much alive inside, even if it hasn't got any blossom or leaves showing. Even ground vegetation is abundant in its diversity AND there's the knowing that come spring and summer hundreds of wintering plants will return and grace us with their presence - how fantastic!
Step 4, get as much sunlight as possible. Just because daylight and sunlight is more scarce in winter doesn't mean we should avoid it entirely. There is a strong correlation between light levels and health, making daylight and important winter resource worth actively seeking. Ensuring you experience daylight before you look at any screens is essential for hormone health, with the greatest benefits coming from light exposure in the morning. Stepping outside to bathe your closed eyeballs in light from all directions improves alertness, focus and sleep, whilst afternoon sun improves mood and testosterone/oestrogen levels. Exposure to daylight is especially important if you work or live in areas where there is no natural light, which can be common in urban areas. Getting to work before the sun has risen and home after dark isn't uncommon in winter, so accessing daylight during the day needs to be a priority or your health will suffer.
Step 5, is to eat seasonally appropriate food. In western cultures, we have moved away from seasonal diets to enjoying our favourite foods all year round. Foods and the way they are cooked mean they have different properties. Winter vegetable soups are warming and nourishing, while salads are cooling. Cooking foods make them easier to digest, causing less strain on the body when it's cold, leaving more energy for feeling cheerful. Eating your main meal at lunchtime is ideal too, as it gives you the most time to digest before bed, improving your sleep and giving you essential fuel for the day.
Step 6, is budget for winter. Just like we reap the abundance of harvest in summer and autumn, I highly recommend we financially budget for winter to spread the cost of heating, lighting and Christmas. If you know it is coming, put aside extra funds to take the stress out of winter living. I call this "respecting the season" as it accepts and accommodates the winter costs. This is especially important to do if your are stretched financially as being in debt costs more in the long run. Whilst it may be tempting to splurge in summer when living costs are lower but potentially the same income, the stress of winter hardship makes it not worth it. There are plenty of budgeting apps out there that help you keep track of finances, or set up a seasonal direct debit to a savings account to put funds away in summer ready for Christmas.
Step 7, is to do the deep inner work winter invites us to do. When we go through the harshest of environments is when we see our difficulties the most. Rather than run away from them or wish they didn't exist, create an environment that enables you turn to them one by one and tackle them so they no longer have power over you. This may be coming to terms with your relationship with your thoughts, feelings, emotions, career, age, health status, living arrangements, financial situation or other people. None of these things are to be feared if you choose to accept your current reality and use that as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Low or no cost changes
As you can see, much of the advice above is zero-cost lifestyle changes. The only cost to the above is the energy required to make the changes, and that is where I come in. As someone who has successfully been through this process I help people make shifts in their life for the better. Whether it's help and encouragement to start a financial plan, being shown how to sun bathe your eyes for better mood or addressing the underlying health issues that worsen with the stress of winter - I can help.
I have been supporting people's physical, emotional and spiritual health since 2010 and my own health issues since 1999. Since then I have amassed some helpful knowledge and experience! Check out my coaching packages for creating lasting change or my Reiki treatments to help with relaxation and better health.
And as for me and my own winter blues, I would say they have been gone for at least 10 years now. In fact, I look forward to winter now as much as I look forward to all the other seasons, as each season has it's unique benefits. I love the winter sunrises and sunsets, cosy nights in by the fire, hot chocolates with marshmallows on, woolly hats and warm clothes, working less, nurturing myself more and the change winter brings. If I can be of assistance, I would love for you to have this joy of all seasons too!