Health & Fitness 7 ways to cope when the winter affects your mental health

18:23  03 december  2017
18:23  03 december  2017 Source:

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7 ways to cope when the winter affects your mental health © Olaia Irigoyen / EyeEm / Getty 7 ways to cope when the winter affects your mental health

As colder temperatures set in and the daylight hours dwindle, it's no surprise that many people find themselves feeling low or less happy than in summer months. The change of seasons can impact massively on our mental health, leaving us with the 'winter blues'. One study found that Google searches about mental illness followed seasonal patterns - with many more people looking for this type of information over the winter.

Winter weather can also make coping with year-round mental illness, such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, more difficult.

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Rachel Boyd, from mental health charity Mind, says it's not unusual to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, or to find that you eat more or sleep longer in winter.

"For some people the change in day length and lack of sunshine can have a much greater impact on their mood and energy and lead to a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD)," says Rachel. "Most people who have SAD will be affected when the hours of daylight are shorter between December and February."

It's estimated that two million people in the UK alone are affected by SAD, resulting in symptoms of feeling low in mood and irritable, not enjoying things that would usually make you happy, lethargy and sleep disturbances.

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If you find that the winter is affecting your mental health, here are some ways to cope…

Try and do as much physical activity as you can

Physical activity can help lift your mood and energy levels. Research suggests that outdoor exercise, such as cycling or jogging, can be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

Rachel says, "Experiencing SAD can reduce your desire to be physically active, especially as exercise can be less appealing during winter. While you may not feel like it, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. If running in winter isn't for you, activities such as dance and even trapeze classes have been shown to have positive benefits for people's mental health."

Make the most of natural light

Dr Sara Kayat, GP, often sees an increase in consultations regarding mental health during the winter months, which she suspects is partly due to SAD.

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She says, "To help improve the symptoms of the winter blues I suggest walking for an hour a day, especially at midday and on brighter days. Also sit near windows when possible. It's also worth considering painting your home in pale, reflective colours - which may help brighten up your environment."

a woman standing next to a tree © Provided by National magazine company ltd (Hearst UK)

Invest in a SAD light

If you are unable to find the time to get out and make the most of natural light, light therapy can be helpful. It involves daily exposure to a bright specialist light, usually for a couple of hours.

Rachel says, "Light boxes are usually at least 10 times the intensity of household lights. Unfortunately, there are only a few NHS clinics specifically for SAD, so it can be difficult to get a referral and you may have to wait a long time for an appointment. Therefore, you may want to buy a light box yourself, though it's best to try one out before buying – manufacturers and suppliers may be able to offer you a free trial or you could hire one first."

Balance your blood sugar levels

"It's generally a good idea to avoid foods that cause a spike and then drop in blood sugar levels as this can alter mood and increase irritation," says Dr Sara. "Reducing processed foods like white rice and pasta, foods containing refined sugars, alcohol and caffeine may all help. Protein and fibre also has a positive effect on balancing blood sugar levels so including these in your diet may help."

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Ensuring you're not deficient in any minerals or vitamins will help you feel healthy, avoid picking up viruses and give you the energy you need during the winter. So, take in lots of varied fruits and vegetables and healthy fats like those in oily fish.

Get creative

Creative activities, such as painting and photography, can be therapeutic as they can help you switch off from day to day pressures, turn negative thoughts or feelings into something positive and give people the opportunity to socialise.

"If you do enjoy creative activities, Crafternoon is Mind's national fundraiser, and is about getting together with friends, family or colleagues and holding an afternoon of creative fun," says Rachel.

Increase your vitamin D intake

Vitamin D plays an important role in keeping our bones and muscles healthy, but researchers are now discovering that low levels could also contribute to mood disorders, including depression and SAD.

Dr Sara says vitamin D is largely made by a reaction in our skin to sunlight. However, during the winter months in the UK, sunlight doesn't contain enough UVB radiation to make vitamin D and we must rely on getting it from food - such as oily fish like tuna and mackerel, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified cereals - and supplements. She recommends taking an intake of 10mcg a day.

Talk to someone

It's easy to become more isolated during the winter. "If you know you find it hard to leave the house you could arrange a phone or Skype call with a loved one or ask if they can come and visit," says Rachel. "Talk to them about how you are feeling. If it's just the cold that is putting you off, do try to remember that social contact could lift your mood and possibly make you feel a little better."

If you find your symptoms are so bad that your quality of life is affected, speak to a doctor for help.

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