We are told that Christmas should be one of the happiest times of the year, yet so many of us struggle with the ‘forced joviality’ – that feeling that we ‘should’ be happy and everything ‘should be perfect’.
The pressure and stresses of cooking, shopping, wrapping and attending events can also be overwhelming. So overwhelming that, according to the National Institute of Health, Christmas is the time of the year with the highest incidence of reported depression.
Of course, there is a marked difference between actual depression and what is known as ‘the blues’. If sadness persists for more than two weeks, or affects your ability to function at home, work or in other aspects of your life, you may have clinical depression*. This affects roughly 17 per cent of all adults during their lifetime. For the rest of us, it’s just the plain old blues. Symptoms include low mood, anxiety, sleep problems, lethargy, low sex drive, overeating (particularly carbs and sugar), irritability and feeling anti-social. It’s certainly enough to seriously affect our day-to-day lives, so what can we do about it?
Read through the following 12 tips and select those that you feel you can use straight away and before you know it, you’ll be feeling better and looking to incorporate those tips that are still on the list.
(*Expert professional advice is highly recommended in the case of someone who may be suffering from clinical depression).
12 TIPS TO COMBAT THE WINTER BLUES
1) KEEP ACTIVE
The number one way to treat a low mood is exercise – time and time again, studies have shown that effective activity helps to increase both serotonin and endorphin production and release – these are the happy brain chemicals that leave us feeling good.
In fact, many studies show that consistent exercise is an effective treatment plan for depression. In particular, aerobic exercises, like running, brisk walking and cycling, are the most likely to boost serotonin. However, many people are surprised to discover yoga works too.
The biggest problem with exercise is that when people don’t feel like it, they are unlikely to partake – and when does this tend to occur the most? Winter of course. So, by the time January hits, with a sedentary habit formed over the previous months, moods can be at an all-time low – yet few people are aware of this obvious link. So, don’t let it happen again this year. Ignore that resistance to put on your runners and go – you know how good you’ll feel immediately after exercising. So, even if that means wrapping up and braving the elements, despite not feeling like it, just do it!
2) SEE THE LIGHT
It’s believed that the winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects approximately one in four of us, usually starting around October, and then ending with the sight of the first daffodils in March.
Getting outdoors in natural daylight as much as possible will help prevent this, especially at midday and on brighter days. Inside your home, choose pale colours that reflect light from outside, and sit near windows whenever you can. One way to get light therapy at home in winter is to sit in front of a light box for up to two hours a day. Light boxes give out very bright light at least ten times stronger than ordinary home and office lighting.
However, research now shows that just one hour of aerobic exercise outside (even when it’s cloudy) has the same therapeutic effects as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors.
3) KEEP WARM
Believe it or not, just being cold can you make you more susceptible to depression. Just think about it for a moment – it’s a basic human need, like food and water. Research shows that staying warm can reduce the winter blues by half. So prioritise the cosy factor. Treat yourself to fleece-lined boots, new hot water bottles, a cashmere jumper or a new scarf, hat or pair of gloves. Indulge in warm baths with added Epsom salts or Radox. Keep warm with hot drinks and spicy, warming foods. Aim to keep your home between 18C and 21C (or 64F and 70F degrees). You might be interested to check out the grants at Citizens Information to keep your home warm.
4) EAT NUTRITIOUS FOOD
A healthy diet will boost your mood, give you more energy and stop you putting on weight over winter. Balance your craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, with plenty of fresh vegetables and lean proteins, like fish or turkey. To keep your blood sugar stable, make sure to eat every three to four hours – and always protein.
Aim to eat foods high in tryptophan – an essential amino acid that acts like a natural mood regulator (it is believed to induce sleep and fight anxiety). Also, consider taking a multivitamin, a high dose of omega-3 (shown to help boost moost and make the body more efficient at fat burning). The foods high in tryptophan also tend to be high protein foods, which fits in nicely with a weight loss plan. Go for seeds and nuts, turkey, cheese, tofu, lamb, beef, tuna, shellfish, eggs, beans and lentils. For recipes using these foods, check out our recipe section; it’s packed with loads of great options for you to try at home. Or buy a copy of Deliciously Healthy, our new recipe book. For sale in your local clinic for €14 with €2 from each sale going to Diabetes Ireland.
In terms of supplementation, as well as a daily multi-vitamin and calcium tablet, as well as omega-3 fish oils (also believed to help boost mood), you could consider a supplement containing vitamin D-3 daily. Vitamin D is created by the sun’s rays on the skin, and therefore declines during the winter. Although studies on the effect of vitamin D supplements on seasonal depression have come up with varied results, it’s still an important vitamin for immunity and general health.
5) FIND YOUR TRIBE
It’s been shown that socialising is good for your mental health and helps ward off the winter blues. The problem is that many of us don’t feel like it when the blues hit. Focus on the people who you really connect with, and who appreciate you for who you are – the ‘real’ you. Make an effort to keep in touch with people you care about and aim accept any invitations you get to social events, even if you only go for a little while.
Many people want to avoid social situations when anxious or feeling down, but avoidance can often just makes thing worse. You may dread an event, but then find that your spirits are often lifted after you go. Also, think about joining a weekly class or group – it could be anything, such as playing bridge, singing, knitting, joining a gym, keeping a journal, or writing a blog. The important thing is that you have something to look forward to and focus on.
6) TALK IT THROUGH
Talking treatments such as counselling, psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you cope with symptoms. See your GP for information on what’s available locally. Get some more information from Your Mental Health or get some useful tips from Aware on how to cope with depression or download this very helpful guide on anxiety from Mood Juice.
7) CATCH ENOUGH ZZZ’S
Aim for at least seven to eight hours sleep each night – this is essential for optimal weight loss as a lack of sleep can lead to cravings and increased fat storage via the stress hormone cortisol (which is elevated when you’re surviving on less sleep – even if you feel okay). A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when people were starved of sleep, late-night snacking increased and they were more likely to choose high-carb, energy-dense snacks.
A second study found that sleeping too little prompts people to eat bigger portions of all foods, increasing weight gain. Most people need seven to nine hours of sleep each night – less than that and your hunger and fullness hormones, called ghrelin and leptin, will be affected. Ghrelin signals to your brain that it’s time to eat and, when you’re sleep-deprived, your body produces more ghrelin. Leptin, on the other hand, signals satiations and the cue to stop eating and, if you are not getting enough sleep, leptin levels plummet, meaning you don’t have the ‘stop button’.
Lastly, the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ rises with too little sleep, signaling your body to conserve energy which essentially puts the brakes on your weight loss.
8) DON’T FORGET THE IMPORTANCE OF HYDRATION
It’s easy to drop the water habit as it gets cold but dehydration leads to cravings and could slow down your metabolism. Drink herbal teas and hot water if you struggle with cold water – but always make sure you get your eight glasses (or two litres) per day.
Starting the day with hot water and lemon is a great habit to get into and kickstarts your day in a healthy direction. Making water drinking a habit results in acquiring a natural thirst and the body will function optimally. Drinking water keeps the skin healthy, bowels moving regularly, and muscles energised. Studies suggest 9 to 16 glasses per day is ideal.
Aim to keep a water bottle on hand at all times. Herbal teas are just water with an infusion of flavour so can be counted as water, sparkling water is okay too. Water promotes weight loss as it removes the by-products of fat, reduces hunger as it is a natural appetite suppressant, raises the metabolism and has zero calories.
We stock the Contigo refillable water bottle and it’s a great water bottle to have by your side. If you invest in a top class water bottle, you are more likely to use it….
9) DITCH THE GUILT
Don’t be lulled into the negative guilt-binge cycle. Divide the day into four segments – if you slipped up, limit it to one or two ‘segments’ and then get straight back on track – no more of the ‘I’ll start on Monday’ or even tomorrow mentality. If you’ve overindulged the night before, don’t be tempted to cut back the morning after. Start the day with a high protein, nutritious breakfast to help stabilize blood sugars. Also, take a moment to think about how you feel after over-eating. This will hopefully help you remember the sensations – groggy, bloated, nauseous – the next time you have the urge to binge.
Maintain good eating and exercise over the next few days and you’ll be feeling better quickly. Lastly, instead of judging yourself, always try to learn from a slip – was it physiological (ie. due to a gap of more than four hours between eating, or eating too many carbs?), or was there something psychological going on for you (such as intense anxiety, anger, sadness or frustration?). Work it out – learn from it – then move on!
10) CONSIDER YOUR BOOZE HABIT
Consuming alcohol can sabotage weight loss efforts. Those who really want to shift the pounds quickly often make the decision to avoid alcohol during the weight loss phase, while others prefer to incorporate it into their healthier lifestyle by finding lower calorie options and drinking only in moderation. This is down to the client’s own CHOICE.
The problem with alcohol is that it interferes with the way the body burns fat. When you take a drink, the body stops using fat for energy and uses alcohol instead. This causes a build- up of fatty acids and hinders weight loss. Alcohol especially decreases fat burn from the stomach which is where the term “beer belly” comes from.
Secondly, alcohol lowers inhibitions are so extra calories from greasy or fried foods are difficult to avoid. Sleep deprivation is a side effect of alcohol consumption as deep restorative sleep is compromised while alcohol is in the system. Not getting enough rest triggers cravings and likelihood of eating more calories the following day.
11) TURN DOWN THE DIAL ON PERFECTIONISM
“Perfectionism is often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis”
– according to social commentator Brene Brown. Perfectionists may not realise it but they often operate from a feeling of being deeply flawed, and even unlovable. Most perfectionists smile on the outside, but feel frustrated, exhausted and unappreciated on the inside. They are also more likely to become rundown or burnt out as they are unlikely to ask for help – of course, that means admitting they are flawed! This winter, try to be more forgiving and kinder to yourself and allow yourself to make mistakes and to take short-cuts if needs be.
Don’t accept the ‘perfect’ representation of Christmas that the media peddles and lower your expectations of what it ‘should’ look like. Ask for help or accept it if it’s offered – you don’t have to do everything yourself. And lastly, stop defining yourself by your external achievements – such as that perfectly wrapped gift or delicious four-course meal – instead, value yourself for your unique personality traits, such as your kindness, your patience or your sense of fun and adventure. Check out Brene’s chat on perfectionism over on You Tube.
12) WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE (AND ATTITUDE!)
Telling yourself ‘I hate winter’ isn’t going to help. Saying to yourself ‘I’m going to embrace winter this year’ will seep into your subconscious and could start turning your mood around.
Try focusing on the positives of winter – the cosy nights in beside a roaring fire, the flicker of candles, the lovely winter coats and all the decorations around the house. Be grateful for what you have in your life, rather than focusing on what you don’t have. Take action and do interesting and fun things – make a list of galleries you want to visit, shows or plays you want to see, or trips you want to take at the weekend. Take a leaf out of a child’s book – they get so much joy out of snowball fights, jumping in crunchy leaves and sipping on hot chocolate and wrapping up warm to play outside. Keep a positive attitude and the cold months will fly by – before you know it, those daffodils will be peeking out into the sunshine.