Beating the Winter Blues

As the days get shorter and colder, some of us will be dreading the “winter blues”. Geelong’s latitude of 38 degrees south means that there is substantial variation in our seasons. Many of us enjoy this variety and have different preferences for our favourite season (my theory is that depends partly on when we were born). But for many of us, winters can drag on somewhat.

There are a number of reasons why winter can bring down our mood. We may engage in less outdoor activity and physical exercise. Especially when the weather is poor we tend to stay home more and socialize less. If our activities are restricted day after day as a result of poor weather, we might be more susceptible to “cabin fever”. But beyond this, less exposure to sunlight can affect our brain chemistry. We may produce less serotonin and melatonin, neurotransmitters that are known to affect our mood.

Individuals vary in their response to these changes. Many people may experience a lowered mood in winter, but some people report a more severe reaction. They might have experienced a common onset of depression in late autumn or winter, year after year, yet only rarely experience depression at other times. This pattern of difficulty is sometimes described as seasonal affective disorder, although this condition is not proven. There nonetheless seems little doubt that some people experience a seasonal influence in experiencing depression. It may seem to come out of the blue, and cannot be easily explained by other stresses. The person’s depression may respond more slowly to psychological therapy than usual. The more common signs are tiredness, oversleeping, changes in appetite and weight gain.

I have seen some clients where it seems that there has been a noticeable biological influence on their depression in winter months. Their depression has seemed more severe or persistent than usual. However, it is often difficult to separate out the seasonal influences from other factors. For example, I saw someone who I was convinced had an extra biological influence on his level of depression in winter, but he was also a professional footballer who was exposed to further pressures at that time of year.

To counter the winter blues it is important that we have ways of appreciating the change in seasons. It is part of the variation and interest in life. Some enjoyable activities are more associated with winter. These include creating a cosy and warm area of the home to enjoy. We might enjoy a log fire, or perhaps playing indoor games with family or friends. Many families enjoy regular winter activities such as going to the football together. It can be a very enjoyable time of year for putting on thick coats and going for walks. We can enjoy the greenery of landscapes whilst driving in the country. Apart from that it could be a time of year where we have less distractions from work projects or other pursuits. We may more easily find time for reading and indoor hobbies.

My main tips to deal with the winter blues would be to keep up our physical activity where possible. Physical exercise is one of the best ways to promote good mood, sleep and well-being. It is all the better to engage in physical exercise with others. This can include walks with friends and family or engaging in sporting activities that also keep up our social contact. We might need to put a bit more active effort into planning social activities if we tend to spend less time outside in winter. It is worth increasing our exposure to sunlight where possible, partly to offset the biological changes described earlier.

For those more affected by the winter blues, it might help to plan a holiday to a warmer place as a break in the season. This also provides something to look forward to as the days shorten. Where people find that they lowered mood is more severe or persistent, and especially if they notice physical changes in tiredness, sleep and appetite, it would be worth talking to your doctor. There are a range of strategies to alleviate depression, including medical and psychological strategies, to help return to one’s usual level of well-being.