This article by Umbrella’s Managing Director Jacqui Maguire was first published in The NZ Herald 20 May 2019. 

As the wind hurls and rain splutters across my windows, reality strikes that winter is truly on its way. Long gone are my balmy strolls along a pohutukawa-lined coastline.  Hollywood has got an uncanny ability to showcase winter in endearing light: who wouldn’t want to spend their days making snow angels on the front lawn followed by hot cocoa in front of the fire? However, regardless of weather niggles, winter may not be so pleasurable for many people.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as the ‘Winter Blues’, is a subtype of depression that usually impacts people in autumn/winter (in New Zealand this is between May and September). If you are someone who struggles during seasonal changes, it’s a good idea to upskill your knowledge on SAD, as effective support and intervention is warranted.

Many of the symptoms experienced with SAD mirror regular depression symptoms:  fatigue, loss of enjoyment, change in appetite, diminished energy and libido, difficulty concentrating and a sense of hopelessness for instance. The American Psychological Association reports that specific winter-onset SAD symptoms can include:

  • Oversleeping
  • A craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Reduced energy

Whilst the research does not highlight an isolated cause of SAD, a reduction in sunlight is thought to impact on three important biological processes:

  • Your circadian rhythm: this is your body’s internal biological clock that regulates your sleep/wake cycle
  • Underproduction of serotonin: an important hormone that supports mood regulation
  • Overproduction of melatonin: a hormone produced in response to darkness that triggers drowsiness.

It is important to note that the reduction in sunlight is thought to be less of an issue here in New Zealand than in the Northern Hemisphere. The research also highlights that an onset of SAD is most likely between ages 20 and 30 years, and is more prevalent in women than men (4:1).

If you have experienced the above symptoms, it’s a good idea to check in with your GP. There are a number of known treatments that may help, including phototherapy (colloquially known as lightbox therapy), cognitive therapy or medication.

Outside the parameters of a SAD diagnosis, it is important we all proactively care for our wellbeing during winter, as alongside gloomier days, it is during these midyear months that work demands ramp up, holiday frequency drops and barriers to self-care appear.

Effective winter wellbeing boosters are:

Physical boosters:

  1. Move: Be as active as you can, as often as you can. Walk, run, swim, Zumba, gym, yoga….no matter the chosen activity, get yourself mobile. Harvard research demonstrates that exercise (power walking for 35 minutes, 5 days a week) can significantly improve your mood. And on the days where this feels particularly difficult, let Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ be your guide.
  2. Prioritise good quality sleep: Establish a sleep routine where the lights go out at a reasonable hour. Use relaxation exercises, baths, herbal teas and light reading to wind yourself down ready for a deep sleep.
  3. Eat well: Choose the most nutritious food as often as you can, including plenty of complex carbohydrates (e.g. leafy greens, lentils, quinoa).  Carry nutrient-high, energy-enhancing snacks with you and stay away from the processed, energy-sapping choices (e.g. chocolate).

Emotional boosters:

  1. Listen to music: Playing your favourite tunes is a well-known psychological strategy used to regulate mood.
  2. Be mindful: Mindfulness is about being present, aware and non-judgemental in the moment. Mindfulness lowers your stress cortisol, heightens empathy, improves sleep, aids concentration and boosts your immune system. You can mindfully brush your teeth, walk between meetings, talk to a friend… Headspaceand Calmare two great apps to try for mindful meditation.
  3. Experience positive emotion daily: Can you do one thing every day that brings you joy? High-frequency positive emotion is imperative for our wellbeing and mental health.

Mental boosters

  1. Learn new skills: Perhaps a new hobby (I have taken up learning the piano), work skill or anything that will test your brain. The Mental Health Foundation highlights learning and development as an important wellbeing booster.
  2. Disconnect from screens: Our brains weren’t designed to be “on” all the time, so living amongst technology can create mayhem for our wellbeing. Create periods of your day where you can unplug and reboot.
  3. Take mini recovery breaks: Taking breaks between mentally challenging tasks enables us to sustain our wellbeing and performance over time. It also reduces mental fatigue.

Social boosters:

  1. Develop high quality connections: Social relationships boost our mental health, support recovery and add purpose to our lives. Who in your life leaves you positive and with energy? Schedule in time with them!
  2. Mentally show up: When with people actively listen, look them in the eye and put your phone, Fitbit and any other devices away!
  3. Be kind: Research demonstrates that when we are kind to others, dopamine (our reward hormone) is released, and it has a two-hour positive impact on our body as well as helping us feel connected to others.

Winter can feel like a long haul at times, but there are plenty of evidence-based strategies that can help buffer us through the season. I do believe though it is important to take time to appreciate and be grateful for the joys of winter: crisp mornings, mulled wine, a cosy Sunday curled up with a book…What are your winter delights?

Jacqui Maguire is a clinical psychologist and Managing Director of Umbrella Ltd. She works passionately at promoting psychological wellbeing and supporting Kiwis to thrive.