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Beat winter blues: scientific mood-boosting tips

There is a fine but definite line between ‘normal’ winter blues and a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Our psychologists reveal ways to tell the difference and simple practices to boost your winter mood. 

Have winter’s shorter, colder days caused you to want to hibernate? Perhaps your usual motivation and vigour have gone out the window? Or maybe you persistently feel pessimistic or hopeless? While many of us experience a downgrade in our sense of vitality and wellbeing in winter (often called ‘winter blues’), persistent, negative changes to mood or outlook and those that compromise your usual level of functioning may indicate a more serious condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

What is SAD? 

SAD is considered to be a sub-type of depression. It is marked by symptoms of other types of depression but only occurs during certain times of the year. Usually, the onset of SAD symptoms occurs in autmn/winter, with symptoms resolving spring/summer. While there is no definitive ‘cause’, research has identified factors that are likely to contribute to SAD. These include 

  1. Reduced exposure to sunlight, which can affect the body’s circadian rhythms and levels of anti-depressant neurotransmitter serotonin – both of which can influence mood. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood and is often targeted by pharmaceutical anti-depressant medications.
  2. Disruptions to regulation of the hormone melatonin, which responds to changes in light, impacts sleep quality and quantity and may directly and indirectly impact mood.  

Is it winter blues or SAD?

The differentiating factors between winter blues and SAD rest largely on severity and persistence of symptoms. Typical SAD symptoms can include:

  • Feeling depressed for most of the day, almost every day
  • Insomnia/sleeping difficulties, including disrupted or short sleep and oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight (weight gain or loss)
  • Difficulty concentrating/maintaining attention
  • Suicidal ideation 
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless 
  • Losing interest in favourite activities 
  • Feeling irritable, agitated or volatile
  • Feeling persistently sluggish or fatigued or lacking energy
  • Withdrawing from friends, family and leisure groups (isolating)
  • Anxiety

How to boost your winter mood

Whether your mid-year malaise qualifies as ‘winter blues’ or the more severe SAD, there are a number of lifestyle practices that can help to combat the effects of contributing factors. Consider these tips to enhance your mental health and wellbeing during winter. 

  • Ensure that you’re exposed to at least one hour of outdoor light each day (preferably in the morning). This will activate your ‘daytime’ hormones and prepare your mind and body for activity and focus. When indoors, maximise natural light and try to spend time near windows.
  • Make an effort to keep up your social life, even though you may not feel like it. Research shows that those who are socially engaged and connected experience greater wellbeing than those who are isolated or have minimal meaningful contact with others.
  • Continue to exercise for half an hour to an hour each day. Exercise stimulates endorphins, which are natural anti-depressants produced in the body. (Hence the term ‘runners’ high’.)
  • Prioritise practices that promote good quality sleep and adequate sleep duration. These include keeping to a regular schedule for going to bed and getting up, keeping sleeping spaces at a comfortable temperature, keeping screens (laptops, phones and televisions) out of sleeping environments, avoiding caffeinated beverages and foods after lunchtime (e.g. coffee and chocolate), avoiding or minimising intake of alcohol and consuming your last meal a few hours before you plan to go to bed.
  • Consume a balance of nutrients at every meal. Combining slow-release carbohydrates and protein enables optimal synthesis of feelgood neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine (serotonin is thought to be deficient in those experiencing depression and is targeted by the common class of drugs known as SSRIs).
  • Cultivate comfort within your environment. Consider rugging up in warm clothing, snuggling up with a favourite blanket or the doona, maintaining a comfortable indoor room temperature and cultivating a sense of serenity and calm using comforting scents and music. Harnessing the pleasant aspects of the chilly season can help to enhance wellbeing.

If you are experiencing persistent negative changes to your usual mood or mood patterns, motivation or ability to cope with daily life and demands, consider consulting a psychologist, who can assist with strategies to enhance wellbeing and continue to live a rich and satisfying life year round.

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