With Christmas behind us and the winter months stretching out ahead, for many people this part of the year can feel particularly miserable — and most especially if they suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder. While it’s crucial to head to the doctor if you are finding it difficult to cope, there are evidence-backed self-help methods to boost our mood during winter, which can help us to tackle the January blues and no longer feel as if life is on hold until Spring.
It can be tempting to hide away in winter, and a variety of factors can make it difficult for people to socialize even if they want to. However, research shows that lack of social interaction can be as bad for people as smoking, while socializing with others can have a variety of benefits for our physical and mental health — even lowering our risk of dementia.
Joining art or exercise classes, hobby groups or even making a point of meeting with friends every week can help us to combat social isolation during winter, while volunteering has even greater benefits. Altruistic activities increase our happiness while also doing good for the wider community, with 94% of volunteers reporting that helping others improves their mood.
Exercise may not be at the top of our list of things we want to do in winter, but there is significant evidence to suggest that it can make us happier as well as healthier. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity, according to the study author Karmel Choi.
Exercise appears to release so-called “feel-good” endorphins and other natural neurochemicals (such as serotonin) that can enhance our sense of well-being, giving us a natural boost. Yoga in particular has been linked to reduced stress, depression and anxiety, with one 12-week study showing that the improvements in mood associated with yoga that were greater than a metabolically matched walking exercise. This was also the first time that yoga postures were linked positive correlation between acute increases in thalamic GABA levels — a hormone correlated with greater feelings of contentment.
Exercise can help to take our minds off our worries and focus on being in the moment, for example through the soothing yet challenging rhythm of going for a jog. This helps us to pause the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety. Practicing breathing exercises is another effective tool in stress reduction, eliciting the relaxation response and cultivating mindfulness, which has been shown to physically reduce the volume of the “stress-centers” within our brain.
Soak in the Sunlight
A major factor in low mood during the winter months is a lack of natural light. With shorter days and off-putting weather, we can easily go whole days only seeing artificial light and avoiding the outdoors, which may have a negative effect on the production of key hormones such as melatonin and serotonin. This affects both our mood and energy levels, contributing to the lethargy that many of us experience at this time of year.
The solution is to get a much sunlight as possible, and use a lightbox (which uses fluorescent tubes to mimic the sun’s beneficial rays) if it is difficult to do this naturally. Ideally, getting light in the morning has the most beneficial effect, but whether it’s going for a walk during our lunch break or sitting with a lightbox before work any increased level of sunlight should help.
A simple blood test can also be used to determine if we are deficient in vitamin D, a hormone produced through sunlight hitting our skin, which has been shown to help regulate mood. Many people in the UK lack vitamin D during the winter months, so supplementing with this vitamin can make a difference to our overall wellbeing.