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Looking after your mental health throughout the winter

We’ve just experienced the highs of the festive season and for many January is a tough month to get through. Dark days, bills to pay – it can feel like the winter month lasts a lot longer than others!

A drop in temperature can affect how you feel in the winter. If you find the colder months hard on your mental health, it’s a good idea to think about simple ways you can help look after your health now.

Gemma Wright is a practice development nurse for Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust and shares this insight and top tips with the Bay Health Festivals:

Why might my mood feel lower as the season changes?

There are lot of reasons why your mood may be low at this time of year. These can be both mental and physical.

1. Change can be hard to manage

Even though a new season is a predictable change, it’s still a change. And any type of change can be challenging. This is because with change comes uncertainty. And this can be a lot for your body and mind to cope with. We are creatures of habit and even though winter is expected every year, we are still experiencing adjustment and discomforts.

2. Change can create a feeling of loss

Any change (positive or negative) can cause stress and is typically associated with the loss of something. For example, in moving into the autumn you’re losing the longer daylight hours. In changing your job – whilst excited about a new opportunity – you may be losing connections with much valued friends and colleagues and the ‘am I really doing the right thing’ anxiety. More money doesn’t create more happiness, especially if you become more isolated.

3. Physical changes

The changes in temperature becoming cooler, more rain or wind and fewer hours of sunlight can impact your mood. Shorter daylight hours can disrupt your body’s internal clock. This influences the production of serotonin and melatonin. These hormones are important in regulating your body’s internal function and mood. The cold can interfere with inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and increase pain and discomfort.

What can I do to help manage my mental health in autumn and winter?

Recognising the signs of winter depression/SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

If you recognise any of the following signs, it may be worth considering taking some action in order to help bring some balance back to your mood:

  • Having low energy

  • Finding it difficult to concentrate

  • Having problems with sleep

  • Feeling sluggish or agitated

  • Not wanting to speak, see or spend time with others

  • Changes in appetite (often feeling more hungry than usual, or wanting snacks is linked to seasonal low mood)

  • Feeling sad or low, or becoming more tearful than usual

  • Being more likely to get physical health problems, such as having a prolonged cold

  • Loss of interest in doing or attending things

  • Suicidal feelings or thoughts

Acknowledge that change is inevitable

The one thing we can be certain of in life is that we will experience change. So trying to fight or safeguard against it can be exhausting. This can sometimes stop you from being able to accept and cope with change. Learning to accept change can often be more positive for your mental health. It can help you to deal with it more proactively.

Set and keep to a schedule as much as possible

The more change that’s happening, the more important it can become to stick to a regular routine. Having some things that are predictable in your time can create a sense of safety and help you feel more in control. Planning activities that make you feel happy, connected to others and a sense of achievement can help to boost your mood – positive spontaneous activities are good for mental health also like a lunch coffee with a friend.

Make the most of the daylight

Exposure to light is so important during the shorter daylight hours. Getting more daylight can help improve symptoms of SAD. Be creative with how you get more daylight. You could try brightening up your home environment by opening curtains and blinds, making a conscious effort to let in as much sunlight as possible. Or getting outside when you can by scheduling time during your day.

Get proactive

Take charge of what you’re experiencing, either to prevent things from getting worse or from happening in the first place. Be proactive with your exercise and diet by ensuring you make time for physical activity and for eating well. Exercise is known to decrease symptoms of depression and this doesn’t have to mean going out on a two-hour run. Simply walking around the block can help.

If you’re not sure what to do that might boost your mood and mental health, it can sometimes help to keep a journal (either on paper or using an app on your phone). Through journalling, you can pick up on any patterns emerging regarding what makes you feel better, and what makes you feel worse.

Being proactive with your diet is a good idea. When you feel low, you’re more likely to crave comforting foods that help to boost serotonin (which is lower during winter for some of us).

Eating a healthy balanced diet can help to keep you feeling good. Hot comfort foods don’t need to be a bad option – they can be fresh vegetable stews.

How are diet and mental health linked?

The relationship between our diet and our mental health is complex. However, research shows a link between what we eat and how we feel.

Eating well can help you feel better. You don’t have to make big changes to your diet but see if you can try some of these tips.

Eat regularly. This can stop your blood sugar level from dropping, which can make you feel tired and bad-tempered.

Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, energy level and ability to concentrate.

Eat the right balance of fats. Your brain needs healthy fats to keep working well. They’re found in things such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, milk and eggs. Avoid trans- fats – often found in processed or packaged foods – as they can be bad for your mood and your heart health.

Include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet. They contain the vitamins and minerals your brain and body need to stay well.

Include some protein with every meal. It contains an amino acid that your brain uses to help regulate your mood.

Look after your gut health. Your gut can reflect how you’re feeling: it can speed up or slow down if you're stressed. Healthy food for your gut includes fruit, vegetables, beans and probiotics.

Be aware of how caffeine can affect your mood. It can cause sleep problems, especially if you drink it close to bedtime, and some people find it makes them irritable and anxious too. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate.

What should I eat?

The Eatwell guide on the NHS website has detailed information on how to achieve a healthy, balanced diet. (The Eatwell Guide divides the foods and drinks we consume into five main food groups.)

Mind also has advice around food and mental health - with tips on eating well, and how to manage your mood with food, including foods to avoid if you’re taking certain medications. (NB Some foods can be dangerous to eat if you're taking certain medications. They might stop a medication from working as well as it should or may cause side effects. You also may need to take some medications before or after you eat or drink. Others may increase or reduce your appetite. Before prescribing you any medication, your doctor should explain any possible risks or side effects. This is to help you decide whether you want to take it.)

Sharing meals with other people

Eating meals with other people has many psychological, social and biological benefits. They give us a sense of rhythm and regularity in our lives, a chance to reflect on the day and feel connected to others. Biologically, eating in upright chairs helps with our digestion. Talking and listening also slow us down, so we don’t eat too fast.

Make the most of mealtimes by setting aside at least one day a week to eat with family and friends. Choose a meal that’s easy to prepare, so it doesn’t become a chore. Share responsibility, so everyone has a different task: doing the shopping, setting the table, cooking or washing up, for example. Keep the television off so you can all talk and share, having a meaningful conversation.

Be kind to yourself and normalise what you are experiencing

It is normal to experience a change of mood when things in life change. We have all had an abundance of change over the last few years through the pandemic. But remember, it’s how we respond to these changes that can make a difference. Try to go easy on yourself and show yourself the same kindness and compassion as you would to others.

Easier said than done but trying to avoid extra stresses can be helpful. If you know a situation is going to be stressful and you don’t HAVE to do it – avoid it for your own mental health and wellbeing.

Seek support - is there a cure for SAD?

There are a number of treatments available for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), antidepressants and light therapy.

Light boxes are not usually available on the NHS, so you'll need to buy one yourself if you want to try light therapy.

Before using a light box, you should check the manufacturer's information and instructions regarding:

  • whether the product is suitable for treating SAD

  • the light intensity you should be using

  • the recommended length of time you need to use the light

Make sure that you choose a light box that is medically approved for the treatment of SAD and produced by a fully certified manufacturer.

Does light therapy work?

There's mixed evidence regarding the overall effectiveness of light therapy, but some studies have concluded it's effective, particularly if used first thing in the morning when we would of hand the natural light coming through our curtains in summer.

It's thought that light therapy is best for producing short-term results. This means it may help relieve your symptoms when they occur, but you might still be affected by SAD next winter.

When light therapy has been found to help, most people noticed an improvement in their symptoms within a week or so.

If you consider your symptoms to have persisted for too long, or if you are finding it hard to manage or cope on your own. Speak to your friends, family or GP. Or you can visit the Mind website for more information or call the Samaritans helpline (116 123) in confidence who are trained to speak to those facing difficult times and pressures.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral.

The Call service is available Monday to Friday 7pm-11pm and Saturday to Sunday 12pm to midnight.

The Text service is available Monday to Friday 10am-11pm and Saturday to Sunday 12pm to midnight. Contact the helpline on 0800 915 4640 or by texting Hello to 07860 022 846.

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