Surviving the winter months

It can be a struggle when winter hits. The darkness and cold can make us feel lethargic and lack-lustre, more motivated to move towards the couch and zone out in front of the latest Netflix series than take active steps towards the door. Having less energy to engage socially, days feeling shorter, the wind and rain. We become sedentary and withdraw into cosier indoor spaces. This can disrupt routines we previously set up, which maintained good mental and physical health.

Let us consider this phenomenon more closely and see what we can do to give ourselves a fighting chance.

Light

Changes in sunlight can disrupt our circadian rhythm (the process that regulates our sleep and wake cycles). We can feel more tired with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, our brain’s response to darkness is to want to sleep. Spending time outdoors during the day can improve our sleep quality, with both physical activity and exposure to sunlight having a positive impact.

Exposure to artificial light before bed, meanwhile (such as that emitted from our smartphones or laptops), can delay sleep onset, and result in poorer quality of sleep. We are, therefore, encouraged to choose non-screen-based activities, such as reading (a physical book), or taking a bath, before bed. Light therapy lamps can be helpful in replicating sunlight, encouraging a smoother emergence from sleep in the morning and having a positive impact on our mood.

We also know that exposure to sunlight allows our body to create vitamin D, which is essential for our health. In the winter months, it is more difficult for our body to produce the amount needed, so we may need to turn to alternative sources to supplement our vitamin D intake, such as our diet.

Diet

Our bodies burn more calories to keep warm during the winter, so we consume more. A packet of biscuits or crisps can often be the quick fix answer to fill the gap. In the short term, this can feel comforting but, afterwards, we can feel bloated or unsatiated. Instead, our bodies will thank us for making a conscious effort to include more vegetables, in our diet, and fruit. “Let food be thy medicine”.

Peppers and citrus fruit, such as lemons, can increase our vitamin C intake, thus supporting a healthy immune system. Chilli pepper, turmeric and ginger are anti-inflammatory, warm up the body, and are great decongestants if your nose feels bunged-up and your body is swamped with mucus. Not to mention that research suggests cinnamon can act as an antidepressant, and lavender can help reduce anxiety.

Improving our mood may also aid our sleep. How often do we lie awake, due to anxiety, worrying about the future, or ruminating about the past? It all goes hand in hand. Additionally, food is not the only thing we need to be remembering to put in our mouths, it is just as important to stay hydrated in the winter as it is in the summer, as we sweat just as much. So, ginger, lemon and cinnamon tea could be just the solution, providing all the benefits mentioned above, in one mug.

Getting sick

It can be particularly difficult to stave off illnesses, or to endure and recover from them, due to viruses being rife during winter and high levels of stress. Our immune system and body may be running on empty. If we do get sick, being patient with our body and trusting that it is doing its best to fight the virus, can prove difficult. We can aid our body in this process by providing it with adequate rest, instead of going to battle.

It often feels like we are chasing our tail and have a to-do list that needed to be done yesterday, which encourages a “must keep going and battle through” mentality. If we engage in this line of thinking we can start to feel like a war is occurring inside us, our mind is commanding our body to continue to perform optimally, but our body is sick and exhausted, and just cannot do what is demanded of it.

Despite us often falsely believing that our mind is in control, both our minds and bodies need to work as a team for us to be healthy. We can choose to nurture and nurse our bodies back to full health, giving them the time it needs. We can remind ourselves that our health is a priority and having adequate rest now will lead to a quicker and full recovery.

Activity

When we feel low, tired, or unmotivated, it becomes difficult to do things. This can start off with skipping a gym day or not going out for our usual daily walk, progressing to not having gone to the gym or for a walk for a month, and can, for some people, descend into not being able to get out of bed.

The less we do, the less we want to do - or feel capable of doing. We start to feel worse about ourselves (we may feel guilty or disappointed in ourselves for not doing what we set out to do) and we are not getting positive feedback (such as a sense of achievement) from having completed a task.

Within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, there is an intervention called Behavioural Activation. The approach encourages clients to engage in behaviours they have stopped doing or would like to do. Essentially, using Behavioural Activation, as a therapist, I help people to identify which activities they value, and slowly build these into their routine. As the activities start to increase, their mood improves, which encourages them to do more and move towards filling their time in a way that feels beneficial.

We know that exercise releases endorphins, which makes us feel good, similarly connecting with others can release chemicals such as oxytocin, encouraging feelings of safety and love. So, whether it is a run or a meet up with friends that you have been putting off, the positive impact it could have on your mood, motivation level and sleep, may surprise you, if you just bite the bullet and go for it.

It is important to note here that we need to be mindful of balance, to consider how much, and what activities make us feel recharged, and when our schedule feels too full of activities and draining. Overloading ourselves with activities is unsustainable and leads to us burning out, which is also damaging.

Hold a goal in mind

It may be unrealistic to target everything mentioned above. Instead, you could pick one area to focus on, or a goal below. Hold it in mind across the winter months.

  • Go outside once a day.
  • Introduce more fruit and vegetables into your diet.
  • Drink a glass of water every morning.
  • Be kinder to your body when you are sick.
  • Combat isolation by reaching out to friends and family or making new friends.
  • Accept that less might get done during this period.

Final thought

Whilst we may feel envious of other animals being given a pass over winter to hibernate, restoring and repairing for the spring, it does not mean that we too are not allowed to adopt this approach, albeit to a lesser extent. Notice what positives may be gained from the winter months. It is OK to embrace being more introverted and introspective during this time.

Perhaps accepting that less may get done over this period allows you to take some pressure off yourself, by removing unachievable expectations. Maybe with a less active social calendar, it will give you more time to reflect in a journal, or being indoors will allow you space to do some artwork, a puzzle, read a book, or just enjoy a quiet night in. The darker evenings may impose an earlier bedtime regime, forcing you to sleep for longer and get that rest you have been resisting. Whatever it is, acknowledge and try to appreciate it, as spring will be here before we know it.

References

Bazrafshan, M. R., Jokar, M., Shokrpour, N., & Delam, H. (2020). The effect of lavender herbal tea on the anxiety and depression of the elderly: A randomized clinical trial. Complementary therapies in medicine, 50, 102393.

Blume C, Garbazza C, Spitschan M. (2019) Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie (Berl). 23(3):147-156. doi:10.1007/s11818-019-00215-x

Parisa N, Hidayat R, Maritska Z, Prananjaya B.A. (2020) Antidepressant Effect of Cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmannii) Bark Extract in Chronic Stress-Induced Rats. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. May 21. 8(A):273-7. 

Huen, E. (2016). “Five Reasons Why We Overeat in Winter.” Forbes. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Bromley, BR1

Written by Dr Avril Gabriel

Bromley, BR1

Dr Avril Gabriel is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist. She is currently offering one-to-one therapy, after previously working in university counselling services. She also worked in the NHS for many years. She is interested in helping people feel more connected to their body and better understand their experiences.

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