Though we’re still technically in Autumn, it feels like winter is well and truly here. Days are getting colder and longer, and sunlight is becoming scarce. For many of us, our mood can begin to reflect our environment. We find ourselves feeling down and our energy levels plummet, making it difficult for us to function in the same way that we would in the summertime. This includes heightened levels of anxiety and stress as we try to trudge on in a normal fashion. Add a pandemic to the mix and it’s no surprise that winter could be taking a toll on your mental health.
There are many factors that can contribute to the all too common winter blues, but some of us are more susceptible than others (particularly those that are intolerant to cold weather). For some it’s a dull, nagging inconvenience that brings our mood down but to a level that is tolerable. This manifestation of the doldrums should not be invalidated – it still takes a very real toll on our mental health. For others, however, winter can trigger a full blown mental illness that requires treatment and significant lifestyle changes to cope with.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is an illness characterized by cyclical periods of depression during the winter months. It often comes hand in hand with anxiety. Your likelihood of developing SAD depends on a multitude of things including your neurochemistry, geography and genetics. Winter messes with everybody’s biological clocks due to the lack of sunlight, but for people with SAD it’s particularly harmful. Their brains produce more melatonin than is necessary, resulting in lethargy and other depressive symptoms. It can interfere with someone’s life to the point that they are unable to function normally during the winter months.
Further to that, there are pandemic related anxieties that can exacerbate your low mood. Cave Syndrome is a response to the collective trauma of covid that can result in some serious apprehension around breaking the habits that we have developed over the lockdown period. There are two opposite versions of it, the first being a deep fear of infection as things begin to open up again and restrictions are eased. For these people there is a disconnect between the actual and the perceived risk of contracting covid.
Others have become accustomed to the new normal and have enjoyed working from home, the personal space that social distance afforded them and the lack of social gatherings. Cave Syndrome is more common in people who have preexisting anxieties around health or socialising. Pandemic exhaustion is also a very real phenomenon in which our energy levels don’t match our mental and emotional desire to return to normalcy. In conjunction with the energy dip that winter brings about, we may find ourselves incredibly fatigued.
If you’re suffering from any of the above afflictions, don’t worry – they are treatable. Here are some ways to ease your winter sorrows:
Maintain a Healthy Diet
Our bodies naturally crave more “junk” foods during the winter months. It’s totally okay to treat yourself, and you should be doing so! Just remember to consume everything in moderation. Getting your greens and proteins in will give you far more energy, which is important when you’re struggling with fatigue.
Exercise has been proven to increase serotonin levels and produce endorphins, hormones that are essential to lifting your mood. Not only does it help you out biologically, but it’s a great way to take your mind off of things. It’s hard to focus on anything but the stress that your body is under when you’re working out! Experts recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. If you’re prepared to brave the cold, exercising outdoors is best – it’ll afford you some essential vitamin D and daylight that you are likely lacking.
Keep Yourself Busy
Dwelling on your woes is one of the worst things that you can do for your mental health, as it’ll keep you trapped in a bad space. Try to distract yourself as much as possible. Picking up a new hobby is a fun way to redirect your focus and get you excited about something new.
Sleeping is one of the most beneficial things that we can do for our brains and bodies. It resets and energizes our system, preparing it for the day. We should all be aiming for around 8 hours of sleep. It’s obvious that we shouldn’t be getting too little, but we also shouldn’t be getting too much. A common symptom of depression is hypersomnia, which is the opposite of insomnia (though insomnia is common in depression as well). Sleeping for 10 or more hours will increase your lethargy and drop your mood just as much as a lack of sleep will.
Talk About It
Though it may be the last thing that you want to do, it’s important to reach out to friends and family that you trust to talk through what you’re experiencing. Isolating yourself is easy, but withdrawing will only make things more difficult. Try to get out of the house as much as possible and socialise with your loved ones.
Take a Breath
We’ve all heard it a million times before, but remember to take a deep breath. Controlled breathing exercises are proven to calm your nervous system. Breathing deeply signals to your brain to relax, and in turn your brain will release all the tension you’re holding in your body. Try cultivating a mindfulness, yoga or meditation practice to aid you.
Try to avoid intense and overwhelming social events if you think that they’ll exacerbate your anxiety. Get rid of your FOMO and stop comparing yourself to others. We don’t all experience things in the same way, and it’s okay if you’re not in the same mental space as your family and friends are. Being kind to yourself, as hard as it may be at times, is essential to keeping your head above water.
If you are in emotional crisis and don’t have access to therapy, be sure to check out this website for free counselling resources in South Africa.
Any of you struggling with the Winter blues and find these tips helpful? Let us know in the comments below we’d love to hear from you!