This piece was adapted for The Metro.
Darker days and colder weather can affect our mood. While we may not have severe “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) (a form of depression associated with the winter months), the “winter blues” are not uncommon. You may start experiencing lower energy levels, darker moods, and difficulty in concentrating because the outside changes can be affecting our brain chemistry – less sunlight means less serotonin which can affect our bodily functions; more melatonin (produced at night) may make us sleepy), and add to that events being cancelled, or unpleasantly cold – or simply few and far between – there are not as many opportunities for joy. If SAD is common in your experience, then it is important to seek help before it affects your ability to function, but if you are looking for ways to keep the blues at bay, the following may help:
1. Keep a mental social distance!
You only have a finite amount of energy – so make sure you are spending it wisely. Maybe there will be some people you want to see this winter, maybe there won’t, but given that Positive Psychology research has found that healthy relationships are key to a happy life, make sure your network is one that brings you joy.
- Identify what YOU really want out of a friendship and actively seek it out (or spend time with those in your life who already give that to you…as a bonus it means you can genuinely say “no” to the more exhausting people without feeling bad…you really ARE already busy!
Look carefully at your current relationships. Ask yourself:
- Which ones are reciprocal?
- Which ones bring me joy?
- Which ones encourage honesty?
- Which ones can I rely on?
and most importantly
- Which ones are with people I respect for their own values and actions? (Which ones does I actively want to choose?)
Then actively choose to spend time with those people (telling the others - quite legitimately "Sorry I'm busy!")
2. Improve your stress management by asking yourself “How might I behave if I didn’t have that thought?”
A lot of the time stress can be created (psychologically) by the story we are telling ourselves. For example, we might think a meeting went badly and then “carry the burden” of that thought the whole day, until someone else tells us “That meeting was great” – if you have ever been in that situation you will see how a change in perspective (however it comes about – perhaps you were able to check a recording of the meeting) can lift stress right away.
Try the STOP technique
- S = Stop. When you catch yourself in a negative spiral stop – mentally choose to press pause
- T = Take a step back. Reflect on what you wanted to get out of the situation (rather than arguing anything simply to win!) Identify your goal.
- O = Observe. Look at other options that are open to you (now you have the goal in mind).
- P = Proceed. When you take action, try something completely different from the other options. While there is no guarantee that will work, you will at least stop going round in circles which you KNOW will not work.
3. Don’t make rigid resolutions, take a “North Star” approach. Write down your overall goal and identify the steps you need to achieve it, and if you use that as your guide – like a compass, your daily little choices will move you in the right direction. If you get stuck ask yourself – is what I’m about to do going to move me towards my ideal life or away from it!?...and that may be enough to keep you going!
4. Schedule in “development time”. Timetable yourself in every day – making that commitment to yourself as important as your commitments to others – and stick to it, whether you are working on your goals, undertaking formal learning, or simply having a cup of tea while it’s hot! It is also worth remembering, that sometimes we may already "have time" for things like going to the gym, but that is not the same as time to reflect, to plan your goals, to move towards what you want mentally and emotionally.
5. Yes, focus on what you want, but also appreciate what you’ve got. It’s great to know what you are aiming for, but take a moment to recognise what you have…as at one point those things were as much goals as the next thing on your list. Give them, and yourself for attaining them, the value they deserve.
i. Gratitude magnifies positive emotions which can energise us to be motivated to act: Research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly. Our emotional systems like newness – but after a while it wears off. But gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something.
ii. Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. This makes sense: You cannot feel envious and grateful at the same time. (So if you free up some of the space that envy takes up, you have more left to do whatever it is you need to do for you!)
iii. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life and in turn realize that other people have seen the value in you to make those contributions—you can transform the way you see yourself…again your are more likely to be motivated to do something for yourself if you love yourself!
6. Consider a “SAD Lamp”. SAD lamps mimic natural sunlight and people report that spending 30 minutes (or as directed) in their glow can make them feel more positive.
7. Always make time offline!
Switch off, go out into the garden, or at least open a window. Get some time away from the glare of the screen (and all the lighting you might be using to work your “on camera” look). Take a moment to be informally mindful:
- Listen to the birds
- Feel the warmth of the sun (when it’s out)
- Breathe deeply
- Read (a book rather than a download), Sing, Draw – do something away from a screen
- Enjoy a cup of tea (or your choice of beverage) – really enjoy it
- Use an eye mask to get some rest.
Not only is too much time online associated with lower self esteem and higher feelings of depression, the light of the computer can be overly stimulating, bringing about a sense of anxiety – on top of the content you are reading or working with.
Humans are biophilic, we are drawn to nature and research shows it can give our health a boost – walking through a pine forest can have rejuvenating effects, as well as enable some peace of mind and extra oxygenation of the brain, but simply looking at nature can help people heal faster than looking only at concrete or internal walls.
8. Maintain the routines you have in place – even when it’s darker!
If you have already got into a healthy routine, then be aware of things you might need to do to enable you to continue that healthy practice. If you don’t like jogging in the morning as it gets darker consider investing in a light, or whether seasonal gym membership might be an option…prepare to maintain your health in advance.
9. Never underestimate the little wins of the year. The end of the year naturally draws us to reflecting and if we think too much about what we didn’t do – we may overlook what we did instead! Perhaps you didn’t achieve the big goals you had set, but maybe – because of lockdown – you got to see some milestones of your children which you might have otherwise missed. Perhaps you had good intentions to learn to play the guitar, but instead you contributed to your community through volunteering. Recognise the gains as well as respecting any losses.
10. Find time to play. As adults we forget how to play freely – as children would. Our “games” often need to score points or beat targets rather than simply make us laugh. Whether it’s getting the word “penguin” into a sentence today, or skipping while no-one’s looking (most people are on their phones anyway) – do something that stimulates a sense of unadulterated joy!
What can help is recognising that it is not always the big choices in life (buying a house, changing job and so on) that have the greatest impact…it is the little things we choose to do every day, the little habits we create that really shape who we become…so we need to remember we have agency to choose…and then TO choose in the way that benefits our health and wellbeing.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt