How to Conquer the Winter Blues
After a rather protracted Autumn across Australia, it seems winter is finally kicking in - at least in the southern states! The mornings are getting colder and the coats and gloves are finally coming out, but along with the drop in temperature can come a drop in mood. This is colloquially known as the 'winter blues'.
For many of us, the colder mornings, the darker evenings and the rainy days tempt us to hide under the doona just a little longer than we normally would! While miserable weather is certainly a deterrent to leaving the comfort of your warm home, there is also some science behind that urge to stay in and keep hitting that snooze button.
Seasonal changes can affect our energy levels, concentration, and even happiness in the following ways:
- Shorter winter days mean less light and less light means more melatonin. Melatonin is our ‘sleep hormone’, so we may feel sleepier during the winter months.
- Fewer daylight hours and colder, wetter weather may mean less time outside and frequently, less exercise. Exercise is like an energy bank. The more you put in, the more you get back. Less exercise = less energy.
- Temperature regulation is a bit trickier in very cold (and very hot) weather. Have the heating up too high and we tend to dry out a bit too much, irritating the sinuses, decreasing our sleep quality and lowering our hydration levels, leading to fatigue. Too cold and we might also experience poor sleep.
- Winter is also a time when we reach for the warm and hearty foods. Soups are great, but the fries and donuts…not so much! Sugary, fatty, high-calorie foods can affect hormone levels and sleep may suffer as a result.
- For some people, the change of seasons goes well beyond the winter blues, leading to a diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Symptoms of SAD can include irritability, poor sleep, appetite changes, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, poor concentration and a loss of interest in the things we normally enjoy. If you suspect SAD is involved, it is important to consult with your GP or medical professional.
As much as we’d like to just give in to our seasonal urge to hibernate, life (and work) must go on! So, what practical steps we can take to fight off the winter blues?
- Grab the light when you can. If the sun is out, pop outside for a walk. Open the curtains, lift the blinds and let in as much natural light as you can. If getting up in the morning is particularly difficult, incorporating light therapy into your morning routine may be beneficial - alarm clocks which gradually increase in brightness to mimic the rising sun are a good way to prevent disruption of your circadian rhythm, and may have a positive effect on mood.
- Exercise. As the saying goes, ’motion is the lotion’. It might be harder to drag yourself to the mat or the gym, but the benefits will speak for themselves. Studies show that exercise is effective at reducing the symptoms of depression and that the benefits may be long lasting (Craft and Perna, 2004). It may even be almost as effective as an antidepressant.
- Where possible, stay warm without relying too much on artificial heating. Wear warm clothes, closed over shoes and enjoy hot drinks - a hot cup of tea will help keep you warm and reduce the urge to snack on unhealthy foods between meals.
- Eat well. The occasional treat is fine but watch out for those carbohydrate cravings! Swap out the fried food, pastries and pastas for high-quality carbs like fruits and vegetables, and feast freely on foods such as lean proteins, fatty fish, nuts, seeds and legumes - these foods are high in vitamin D, which can quickly get depleted in the Winter months when sunshine is scarce. Recent studies have shown that taking a vitamin D supplement, or generally increasing levels of vitamin D, may assist in the treatment of SAD.
As an employer, if you’re noticing your employees seem to be struggling with the winter blues, there are a few small changes you can make to increase morale.
- Play cheerful music throughout the office. A 2013 study showed that listening to upbeat music could improve mood, both short and long term.
- Set up a walking club. Psychologists at Iowa University found that even a 12 minute walk (preferably outdoors) could have a positive effect on emotions.
- Where possible, allow your employees flexible working hours, or the option to work remotely. Giving them the flexibility to enjoy some daylight, complete errands or attend appointments can increase productivity and morale, and reduce absenteeism.
- Call in the experts. Mindful Employer offers a range of evidence-based workplace mental health training solutions, individually tailored to help create a healthier workplace. With sessions that range in length from one hour to more intensive all day workshops, there’s something to suit your needs.