Do you dread the short, dark days of winter? Leah Larwood offers her advice for coping with the seasonal blues and seasonal affective disorder.
As we tip-toe towards midwinter, now more than ever is an important time to keep a check on our mental health. It’s natural for many of us to feel impacted by the shorter days and for our mood to change a little, so at what point does winter impact our wellbeing and what can you do to make the most of this season?
Although some relish in the feeling of hibernation and the hygge aspects of cosying up with a good podcast and a hot cacao, others may feel the weight of winter on their mental health. Experts don’t fully understand what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but the reduced amount of light in the winter is a key factor.
If left untreated, the winter blues may indeed edge towards SAD, which can sometimes progress into clinical depression or other mental health related issues such as insomnia or anxiety. SAD is very similar to other types of depression, though according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2015), it is three times more common in women than it is in men and can sometimes be more prevalent in women with young children.
As you’d expect, SAD shares parallels with other types of depression. The main symptoms of SAD can include: low mood, low energy and a lack of interest or enjoyment in life. It can also leave you feeling less sociable, becoming more irritable and with a reduced interest in sex. Specifically with SAD, you may be sleeping and eating more too. However, if you are prone to the winter blues, there are helpful ways to keep a check on your wellbeing.
If you look closely, you may find some value to harness from the season. After all, winter is the perfect time to retreat and re-align. It offers an opportunity to nurture our body and mind, to look inward, reflect and tap into our wisdom. Perhaps part of the solution in preventing the winter blues is to re-frame how we can work with winter and play to its strengths.
Self help tools to support winter blues
Mindfulness has become an extremely popular way to support wellbeing – so much so that the NHS offers mindfulness techniques as part of its services within mental health trusts across the UK. Adopting mindfulness techniques allows you to live in the moment, work with unwanted or charged thoughts and cope with things such as the winter blues or SAD.
It’s believed that a daily meditation practise of 40 minutes, sustained over a couple of months, is enough for you to see a considerable change in your wellbeing. Try some guided meditations that allow you to feel present and calm and that will help you to find a positive outlook. You may like to try the Body Scan meditation (find some on YouTube), instead of a nap – for many it’s an accessible approach to mindfulness, and afterwards you’ll feel restored without disturbing your circadian rhythms.
Dreams offer such a wonderful insight into our psyche. Keeping a dream diary is a great way to connect with your inner world and explore your needs on a deeper level. Once you start writing down your dreams, you’re likely to start having dreams of even greater psychological value.
If we listen, we can find out what’s troubling us – the things bubbling around, like an undercurrent of anxiety, the root of which we might not be able to identify until we tune into our dreams. Our dreams can start to present us with patterns and themes and show us how we’re feeling about certain aspects of our lives. They can also help us to tap into our creativity, to find inspiration and guide us in our decision-making.
Plus, the more connected you are to your dreams, the easier it will be to become conscious in your dreams. Lucid dreaming is a brilliant tool to start to explore during the winter. It’s when you’re aware you’re dreaming, and it’s possible to learn how to have a lucid dream. If you’re missing the blue skies, use lucid dreaming to visit somewhere tropical in your dreams and wake feeling as though you’ve received a dose of sun.
Hypnotherapy has been documented as benefiting SAD sufferers, helping them to produce more serotonin through creating a more positive outlook and changing behaviour patterns. Hypnosis is a safe and effective way to break out of negative cycles and move forwards.
It’s the hypnotherapist’s job to take you into a relaxed state of hypnosis, which feels a bit like a guided meditation. This in itself is a relaxing experience. The hypnotherapist will then work directly with your subconscious mind to change unhelpful patterns.
In a session you can also explore the aspects of winter you find challenging and some hypnotherapists will incorporate NLP or CBT techniques to help you find ways of coping with, and re-framing, your mindset.
Journalling is all about literally getting your feelings down on paper. It’s another way in; a chance to unravel your thoughts. Things on paper feel truer – it’s like you’re seeing yourself objectively or through another lens. Yet it provides some distance, a safe space and a mirror all at once. Instead of ruminating or going over thoughts and experiencing unclarity, it can provide focus. Journalling expert, Kathleen Adams, is known for her ‘Lists of 100’ technique, which is a good way of cultivating gratitude and in turn improving low mood.
To try out Kathleen’s approach to journalling, write a list of 100 things about the season that you cherish or 100 things you are grateful for in your life. Repetitions will occur, which is fine. Keep writing – around two-thirds of the way in, your subconscious will kick in and new or surprising information may appear on the page. Then try journalling about the biggest themes that reoccur – just keep writing. You may be surprised at how cathartic the exercise can be and often you’ll find out new things you didn’t realise were on your mind.
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