Winter blues are a real thing. The season can be a difficult one to navigate during normal times, so in a pandemic it's likely going to test our wellbeing. But that's not to say there can't be as many good days as there are bad, or that there isn't a lot to be hopeful about.
While we can't all control the situation we're in, there are a few steps we can try and take to help look after ourselves this winter, and Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Dr Vicky Jervis, from the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, is here to share them, while Mind and the Mental Health Foundation offer some insight on recognising the signs of the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Firstly - take a breath (mindfully)
The NHS' Dr Jervis, who was previously redeployed to neighbouring acute trusts during Covid-19, to offer wellbeing support to her acute colleagues across the region, said, "If phrases such as 'mindful breathing' usually prompt an eye roll, it's worth rethinking your stance.
"Focusing on the present, rather than worrying about the future, can help with difficult emotions and improve wellbeing. Being aware of what's happening in your head and your body can also help us notice early signs of stress or anxiety and give us a head start in managing these."
Speak up and stay connected
Talking openly might come more naturally to some than others, but it's well-worth giving a go - the phrase 'a problem shared is a problem halved' doesn't lie, and might even prevent one.
"It's not always easy to talk about how you are feeling, particularly if you have been brought up to do the opposite. But opening up to someone not only helps relieve the distress but can also help mental health problems from developing further down the line," says Dr Jervis.
It seems the way we use language and picking the right person to share our feelings with are key. "Try to use descriptive emotion words, use 'I' messages such as 'I feel...when...' and choose a 'safe' audience, someone who knows you well and has time and space to listen," she adds.
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Technically speaking, the reason we need to video call, actively pick up the phone, or make the effort to meet loved ones in person, is because "connecting with others through speaking or facial expressions can help to reduce feelings of loneliness, and all adds up to building a sense of connection," says Jervis.
She also emphasises leaning on teamwork where possible. "News flash! You are not a superhero; neither is your boss, your friend, or your neighbour. If you're feeling overwhelmed or struggling to cope, ask for help."
Dr Jervis recommends speaking to a friend, family member, colleague, or to check out Recovery College Online for excellent free resources, as well as utilising local services.
Balance is key
While there's no judgement for those who have a drink of an evening, Dr Jervis reminds us to consider why this might be, and what effects it has.
"Drinking as a way of handling stress, nerves, feeling down or anxious is common," she says. "What many people don't realise is that alcohol has a negative impact on your mental wellbeing, acting as a depressant and impairing natural sleep, so it's important to monitor your intake."
'I am proud of...'
"Self-esteem is the secret weapon of wellbeing," says Dr Jervis. But in a society being overtaken by anxiety and insecurity, what first step can we take to achieve it?
She adds, "Make a list of your strengths and mindfully think about these. It's not easy or comfortable for most people...but it's important we recognise our strengths and achievements (big or small). Try creating a gratitude journal or jar so that you can look back at things you, or your team, have achieved over the year."
She also explains that learning and developing new skills can help boost self-esteem, give us a sense of hope and purpose, and boost our resilience. Rubik's Cube anyone?
Switch things up to re-energise
Stuck in a routine, that perhaps isn't benefiting you as much as it should, or been sitting in the same place all day?
"Take a break!" urges Dr Jervis. "It could be as short as five minutes to go outside and take a breath, a half hour workout in your front room or a whole day to yourself. It's about the quality time invested in yourself. Guilt-free!"
Any form of physical activity is good
While we might know exercise is good for mental health, it can often be hard to find the motivation to actually do it. But Dr Jervis makes clear we don't have to go for gold, just anything at all.
"Aim to spend a few minutes outside each day, even if it's cloudy and dingy, your body and mind will thank you for it," she says.
"Just 10 minutes a day is enough to make a difference. And it doesn't have to be long periods on a treadmill either, team walks, dancing, throwing a frisbee or even just taking the stairs counts."
With colder temperatures, it might be harder to get out for that 15-minute lunch-break walk, but Dr Jervis still strongly recommends it.
Help others to help yourself
Doing nice things for others or helping to raise their spirits, when you have capacity to, is an all-round effective way of feeling better yourself.
"People who are kind and compassionate see clear benefits to their wellbeing and happiness. Lifting yourself out of your own headspace and thinking about others is also a powerful way of combatting stress and negative thought patterns," says Dr Jervis.
She adds that this can be trying out volunteering for a good cause, or simply carrying out one small act of kindness – perhaps like getting a neighbour supplies.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
It's also important to recognise when what you're feeling might not just be the 'winter blues,' but something more serious.
Rosie Weatherley, Information Content Manager at Mind, said, "Seasonal Affective disorder is a type of depression experienced in certain seasons. There is a difference between feeling down because of the weather and experiencing SAD.
"Many people are affected by changes in seasons. For example, we might feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer and we might eat more and sleep longer in the winter.
"If you have SAD, the change in seasons has a much greater effect on mood and energy levels, leading to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on day-to-day life."
How does someone develop SAD? “The causes of SAD aren’t always clear, but we know that a lack of daylight can have a big impact on mood, especially during the autumn and winter," says Weatherley.
"When light hits the back of the eye, messages are passed to the part of the brain responsible for sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there’s not enough light, these functions are likely to slow down and gradually stop. The lack of daylight hours may also slow your body clock, making you feel more tired, and increase production of the hormone melatonin which helps you get to sleep – both things may therefore link to depression."
According the Mental Health Foundation, the symptoms of SAD include feeling sad, tearful or hopeless, having no energy, feeling anxious or worried, finding it hard to concentrate, being unable to enjoy things that usually bring you pleasure, losing interest in sex, not wanting to see people, and feeling suicidal.
Going for walks, engaging in physical activity, eating well, getting some natural light, and spending time in nature can help to ease the symptoms of SAD, but both Mind and the Mental Health Foundation urge anyone who thinks they might have the condition to get help from their doctor to understand it better, and find out what help is available.
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