06 January 2020

How to beat the winter blues this January

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Dark nights, cold weather, coughs and colds can mean that many of us experience a touch of the winter blues in January, particularly after the holiday period has come to an end.

This winter, a Consultant Psychiatrist from Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership (AWP) NHS Trust, is sharing his tips on beating the winter blues.

Dr Daniel Hodgson, said: "This time of year can be really difficult for some people for a number of reasons. As well as the weather and fighting off bugs and germs, the bank account is often empty and we can feel completely run down and exhausted. But there are things you can do to help beat the winter blues. Things like eating sensibly, establishing good sleep patterns, getting some exercise and managing stress levels can make a difference to how we feel.

"But if those feelings continue there are other places to access help. If you are worried about your mental health you should speak to your GP in the first instance to discuss how to access the best help. You can also refer yourself to your local Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service. They offer talking-based treatments and resources for people who are feeling worried, stressed or unhappy.

Tips on how to beat the winter blues

Increase exposure to light
Research has shown that the brain is affected by the amount of UV light it comes into contact with and that this light influences the hormones in the brain that control the body's daily rhythms and mood.

If there isn't enough light the brain can have too high levels of melatonin, the hormone that signals the difference between day and night. This leads to people having difficulties getting up in the morning and feeling lethargic during the day. There can also be less serotonin in the brain during shorter winter days and low levels of this chemical have been associated with depression.

Some research has shown that exposure to morning UV light is particularly helpful at warding off the blues. Consider planning an outdoor activity in the mornings before work or taking a stroll outside during a morning break. When your body needs more sunlight sitting next to a window or investing in an artificial light, called a light box, can be an effective solution and has mild anti-depressant properties.

Keep your sleep habits under control
Try to stick to a sensible daily routine, particularly when it comes to your sleep habits. During the early part of the year it is often dark when you wake up and dark from late afternoon. Make a plan to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day to re-establish good sleep patterns. Avoid using alcohol and caffeine to manage your sleep and wakefulness as these can disrupt the quality of sleep and lead to further problems. Remember that naps exceeding more than 20-30 minutes can disrupt your night time sleep so try to avoid sleeping during the day to catch up on lost sleep.

Increase your aerobic exercise
Take regular walks outdoors, if possible, and increase aerobic exercise, particularly under bright light conditions. Studies have shown that walking fast for 30 minutes a day five times a week or 60 minutes a day three times a week improves symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Research has confirmed that exercise under brighter light improves general mental health and emotional wellbeing, social functioning and energy levels.

Modify your diet
Use the winter months to make changes to your diet. This means avoiding sugary foods. Sweets and simple carbohydrates such as white bread and white rice quickly raise blood glucose (sugar), flood the body with insulin (the hormone that controls sugar levels) and lead to a crash in your blood glucose, resulting in a mixture of fatigue and hunger.

Try to eat protein three times a day and add in lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. If weight gain has been a concern in the winter months then consider a healthy eating plan, speak to a dietician or GP and think about joining a weight management group.

Take measures to manage your stress
Research has shown that keeping your mind active with a new interest or hobby wards off symptoms of the winter blues. It has been shown that social interaction is good for your mental health and emotional wellbeing. Make the extra effort to keep in touch with the people you care about and plan some regular social events, even if you're not feeling in the mood. If you're having difficulties at work make sure you speak to colleagues or supervisors early and be honest with how you feel.

Further help and advice
Talking-based treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also help you cope with symptoms. Your local Improving access to psychological therapies (IAPT) service can offer a variety of talking-based treatments and resources if you are feeling worried, stressed or unhappy. You can refer yourself to your local service and they are available and easily accessible in group-based or individual formats.

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