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Managing the winter blues: how circadian rhythms impact on our mental health

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question. I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, humbled by the consciousness of my physical Inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.” – Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.

 

Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of research out there about how humans react to winter in an emotional sense. What I did manage to find was that a longitudinal study examining the patterns of depressive symptomology demonstrated that individuals with depression tended to report elevated symptoms during winter. So if you    often experience low mood during this time, you are definitely not alone. However, the magnitude of increased depressive symptoms was modest – so there’s no need to get too up in arms about the ol’ winter blues.

 

What causes us to potentially experience moderately lower mood during the winter months? Well, the main factor is the overall change in our circadian rhythms (that is, our biological/body clocks) due to a shift in durations and patterns of lightness and darkness. Our bodies and brains are very sensitive to environmental conditions - mainly for survival reasons. The light from the sun throughout the day tells our bodies that it is time to be alert, as this is also the safest time for us to be out and about. Daytime is when our visual systems are able to function most effectively in order to find food and detect predators. It is also when our fellow humans are awake – so it is a pretty useful time to be conscious. During winter, the amount of daylight is reduced, which often leaves us feeling sleepy and introspective because our environment is essentially telling us that it’s time to go into ‘hibernation mode’. If we’re spending lots of time alone indoors, we’re probably not socializing or exercising as much as we normally would. These behaviours are really important for our mental health. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of us experience a dip in our mental wellbeing during winter.

 

What can we do to make sure we’re looking after our mental health during winter?

 

Self-care

 

This involves the basic things we need to do each day to maintain our health and wellbeing such as drinking water, eating a wide variety of nourishing foods, eating at regular intervals, getting enough sleep, engaging in joyful movement, taking time to rest, connecting with others, and practicing mindfulness. These might seem obvious or overly simple, but they can make a big difference to how we feel. We’ve got to make sure the basic, everyday things are covered before we can even think about tackling the bigger things in life.

 

See the positives

 

Winter may be cold and gloomy, but there are some things I really like about it. I like hot drinks, big coats, being inside with the heater on while watching the rain, watching movies, reading books – you get the picture. What I’m saying is, although this season can take its toll on our mental health, it has its strengths – and it’s important to   recognize them.

 

Increase vitamin D intake

 

I’m not an expert on nutrition, but I do know that with the sun hiding, it can be easy to get low vitamin D levels and this can really affect the way we feel. In fact, there is some research to suggest that vitamin D may play a role in preventing and treating depression. Therefore, it may be helpful to consume lots of foods rich in vitamin D, such as dairy products and fish, as well as perhaps even taking a supplement.

 


Reach out

 

Winter feels like a time to isolate ourselves – we don’t feel like going out, and may desire solitude. That’s ok because we all need time to recharge. It’s important, however, to maintain our connections with friends and loved ones even if this occurs less frequently than in the warmer months. Take advantage of ‘winter activities’ like movie nights, board games, cooking etc.

 

Seek help

 

It is estimated that approximately 3% of the general population suffers from a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is essentially a form of season-specific depression, which is most commonly reported in winter. If you tend to experience depressive symptoms that interfere with your daily functioning, or cause distress during a specific season, I encourage you to speak to your GP or psychologist about your concerns.   There are many effective treatment options available. For instance, light therapy is a relatively new intervention that involves exposing individuals to light at certain times to try compensate for the effects of increased levels of darkness on circadian rhythms during the colder months.

 

Written by Lauren—ADAVIC Volunteer

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