With the new academic year now gaining momentum, so too is the seasonal change that frames our daily activity. Warmer spells give way to cold, damper climates, sunlight softens and our days are clipped short as dark nights draw in ever earlier. As these seasonal changes take hold, it is easy for many of us to become less active and spend more time indoors. With less time outdoors, we may begin to feel more isolated and disconnected from our community, finding less natural opportunity for socialising and engaging in enjoyable activities that require bright and dry conditions.
All these parameters can contribute towards negative thinking, low mood and motivation, and feelings of isolation, boredom and hopelessness; symptoms often associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the Winter Blues. It may then be of no surprise that referrals to wellbeing and counselling services often spike in the build-up to Christmas and into the new year. This article will take a look into why this time of year can leave us feeling so low and demotivated along with ideas to boost and safeguard our wellbeing during the winter months.
It is not fully understood why our mood responds to seasonal change in this way but amongst several theories is that the reduction of daylight may be influential. In the absence of daylight, our bodies produce the hormone melatonin which signals to the body that it is time to sleep. Melatonin will only begin to decrease once we actually fall asleep and so until that point, this command to sleep will remain in the background. When sunlight enters the brain, which it can do even through closed eyelids, the production of melatonin is halted to allow for wakefulness. Therefore, no wonder many of us can feel lethargic, demotivated and sluggish during the darker months when the call to sleep is so frequently knocking at our door.
It is also understood that the exposure to the sun is influential to the body’s creation of vitamin D which supports production of the feel good, happy hormone serotonin. So just by a natural decrease in daylight in the cooler months, our bodies and minds are having to fight harder to feel happy and stay awake. With this in mind, when possible, use breaks and unscheduled time during the day to step outside to top up your daylight savings. When inside seek out orangery or conservatory style glass roofed buildings or a seat next to a window which is clean and free from overgrown plants, with curtains and blinds kept open. Where access to natural daylight is not possible, light therapy lamps that replicate the full spectrum white light of daylight can be purchased, which have been linked to improvement in mood and sleep.
By spending less time outdoors during the colder months, we not only miss out on exposure to daylight but can also miss out on the wellbeing perks of engaging with the natural fauna and flora around us. In a study by the Wildlife Trust and the University of Essex, 69% of participants saw an improvement in their mental health following 6 weeks of volunteering in nature. Vincent Van Gogh once wrote that “if you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere” and this free and accessible beauty that surrounds us can be truly mood enhancing.
Try during the winter months to get outside into the natural environment as much as you can but if the conditions aren’t right or you don’t have the opportunity, bring the outside in by introducing plants, animals and nature into your indoor spaces. High oxygen producing plants have been shown by NASA to improve the quality of the air by absorbing up to 87% of noxious gases and toxins in just 24 hours. Many believe that plants can reduce fatigue, headaches, feelings of loneliness and depression and improve the quality of our sleep, and The Royal College of Agriculture even propose that when taught in an environment with plants, students demonstrate up to 70% better attention.
Animals and wildlife are also recognised as beneficial to our mental health, with The University of Lincoln and Queens University Belfast believing that the presence of animals, can reduce anxiety and increase motivation, confidence and feelings of self-worth, engagement, and feelings of support; and even the speed and accuracy of completing mental and physical tasks. Kings College London have reported that seeing the sky and trees and hearing birdsong can increase wellbeing for up to 7 hours. So if you can’t get outside, invest in some house plants, sit with your pet, look out of a window or even play pre-recorded sounds of nature in your home and office to feel more connected with nature.
With a decline in natural opportunity to get out and about and socialise in the winter months, now is a particularly good time to schedule mood boosting events into your calendar. Having these activities built into your diary can give you something to look forward to and help battle against feelings of hopelessness and low motivation. Behavioural activation is a form of positive reinforcement that involves deliberate scheduling of activities that bring about feelings of achievement, closeness and enjoyment.
In the lead up to the New Year, there are already national and religious examples of mood boosting events that encourage social connection, community, celebration and fun such as Halloween, Guy Fawkes, Diwali, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Spend some time personalising and scheduling your own activities for the cooler months. These don’t have to be expensive or extensive, it could be arranging a night in with friends, setting time aside for reading, starting or revisiting a hobby, going to the cinema, going out for meal or ringing a friend who lives far away. Physical activity is known to boost wellbeing and sleep and so try to include this into your plans in a way that is enjoyable for you. Whatever fills you with pleasure, deliberately plot it into the coming months to give you things to look forward to that will bring you joy and a sense of hope.
The arrival of the UK’s winter can leave some of us feeling low and discouraged but we can easily override these effects by being informed and aware of how seasonal change impacts us and taking deliberate action to mitigate risk. In the summer it’s easy to sit back and be thrilled by the kaleidoscope of mood nourishing gifts that arrive with the sun yet in the winter we need to take on a more active role in seeking these out to maintain our wellbeing.
Taking and making opportunities to increase our exposure to daylight and nature are well recognised as valuable to our mental health and as outlined in this article, there are an array of ways to do this both indoors and outdoors. The winter and in particular the new year will benefit from scheduled activities which you recognise as rewarding and ‘feel-good’, which facilitate connection with others, physical activity, fun or a sense of satisfaction. Armed with this knowledge, we can make significant steps to overcome or reduce the influence of the winter blues and make steps to feel better for 12 months of the year.