Dread of winter
As the cold, hard edge of winter closes in, most of us experience some kind of mood change. Darkness descends - we go to work in the gloom and come home in the night. We feel increasing amounts of lethargy as our body and mind begins to slow down. We may also experience low mood states and depleted energy. We try to get used to these seasonal cycles and seek out ways to compensate with comfort and relief - such as sleeping more, eating sugary food, drinking alcohol, and turning up the thermostat - but our strategies are not necessarily healthy.
For some of us, however, the low winter sun triggers an impending sense of dread, and the symptoms of mental ill-health are more serious. There is a slow build-up of bodily tension and mental anguish, as the temperatures plummet, the days shorten, and the light slowly vanishes from our overcast skies. We may start to feel depression, anxiety, and lingering stress without relief.
Our self-awareness and confidence drain away. Emotions become dull, followed by mood swings and joint pain as stress gets locked in. Because we move less and sleep more, the body ceases up and becomes stiff. It’s more difficult to discharge stress and let go of anxious thoughts racing around our minds. We may feel less inclined to go out and socialise with friends and family, so we eat and drink more to compensate for the lack of sensation, and possibly even detach ourselves from loved ones for days on end.
This kind of vulnerability is a surprisingly common experience for many people. As our mental health fails, we may succumb to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), or even increased bipolar reactivity.
So what can we do about it?
In large part, all of these symptoms can be seen as a stress response to the environmental changes of winter - low pressure, cold temperatures, and the lengthening of hours of darkness. The only way to offset these uncomfortable and sometimes painful symptoms is to learn how to adapt. When we become more responsive to environmental conditions and more resilient on the inside, we are better able to cope.
We need more sunlight
Reduced exposure to sunlight in the winter months can negatively impact our mental health. Sunlight is involved in the production of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates healthy sleeping patterns, but in winter our body produces higher levels, causing feelings of lethargy and low energy. A lack of daily sunlight leads to a lower level of serotonin, which normally regulates positive moods, appetite, and sleep, leading to feelings of anxiety and depression. Also, the body's circadian rhythm relies on sunlight to regulate our internal biological clocks, such as when you wake up, how alert you are in the day, and our levels of confidence. So a deficiency in winter can seriously disrupt your body clock, leading to lower immunity, depression, or SAD. However, if you can get out in the morning sunlight, at lunchtime, or for short periods during the day, walking in the park or even working in the garden can improve mood, confidence, mental alertness, and whether we feel rested after sleep. But blue light from screens, TVs, and smartphones seriously disrupts these circadian rhythms.
We need to adapt to the cold
Getting out in the cold fresh air gets the blood circulating, the heart pumping, and activates a deep diaphragmatic breathing rhythm. We tend to burn more brown adipose fat-tissue (BAT) after just 30 minutes in the cold. We become more resilient from adapting to the cold, improve our immune levels, and maintain blood sugar levels with improved metabolism. Counter-intuitively, becoming more tolerant of cold showers or using ice packs on the shoulders can relieve pain and stress; just as athletes to repair use ice-baths to recover and heal injuries in sport.
We need to move
Moving your body with rigorous exercise, muscle strengthening, and deep diaphragmatic breathing helps to regulate our metabolism and discharge stress hormones such as cortisol and unspent adrenalin. It also helps improve our serotonin levels and confidence and releases high lactic acid levels from the muscle tissue which creates stiffness and painful tension in the neck, back, and shoulders.
We need to process unresolved emotions
Curling up into a ball and insulating ourselves from other people, or avoiding heightened states of emotion, does not relieve us of anxiety; it increases our susceptibility to it. We need to listen to our bodies and feel and process difficult emotions so that we become more resilient and can adapt emotionally when in a crisis.
We need to get out
Closing ourselves indoors during the winter and isolating ourselves from the world will not automatically lead to feelings of safety. In fact, the body will feel simultaneously more sluggish and agitated. The body and mind recognise the sensations of enclosure as a kind of trap. The body can become rigid, stiff, and less able to work through the pain in our spine and joints, so putting time aside to engage with stretching and fluid movement can help us feel more flexible and resilient to pain.
We need to problem-solve and find our own solutions
The more we rely on avoidant behaviours to escape from problems, the less tolerant or robust we become in response to daily stress or in a crisis. The more we keep the mind actively engaged in physical labour and problem-solving tasks outside, the more we build confidence and self-awareness. This enables us to be more independent and find our own solutions. Adaptation and dealing with lower-scale problems as they arise leads to emotional intelligence with regard to our own needs and the feelings of others.