The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 150: Beating The Winter Blues

It might sound daft to some people but gloomy weather does have an impact on our mental health. If its grey on the outside we can easily slip into a grey on the inside feeling, which leads to behaviour that might makes things worse, hiding away from everyone and refusing to leave the so called comforts of home.
It’s no coincidence that here in the UK our popular festivals occur in the winter months. As I write this it is November 1st today, which long ago was called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). It’s the Celtic new year and marked the end of Summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, which was, and still is to a lesser degree, a time of year that was often associated with people dying.
Because of this, the night before Samhain they would light big public fires and wear costumes to ward off any ghosts of people who died the previous winter. And we still have these traditions thousands of years later with Hallowe’en. 8 weeks after that they celebrated Saturnalia, the winter solstice. In preparation for the days getting slowly longer our ancestors would party like its 1999 (BC) and light some more fires and eat all the stag they could get their hands on. Morphing slowly over the years into what is now Christmas.
Even as recently as the 17th century, because of Guy Fawkes and the plot to blow up the government, we found an excuse to set fire to something in celebration. Because this time of year we’ve always needed cheering up. It can be wet, cold and miserable. and some people might have to work a bit harder at making sure they don’t slip into depression.
It's thought these winter blues, or in extreme cases Seasonal Affective Disorder, affects around 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people across northern Europe. It doesn’t discriminate and can affect people of any age, even children.
Even the most motivated of characters can feel the pull to hide away, sit on the sofa and put on weight. It’s worth saying though, that there is a difference between what we might call the winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder.
S.A.D is less about how your behaviour changes in the winter and more about how your eyes and your brain work together to create the correct levels of chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin. Too little Serotonin causes depression and too much melatonin puts your body into hibernation mode, so a decrease in sunlight is the perfect storm. Bear in mind we evolved out of Africa, and we’re not built to live this far away from it. In fact researchers have found that SAD doesn’t seem to exist within 30 degrees of the equator. We might have developed paler skin the further away from the equator we’ve lived, but all that does is help us process Vitamin D better. The serotonin and melatonin changes are due to the input from our eyes, not our skin. Which is why the light boxes that it’s often suggested that people with S.A.D use have to shine in their face.
But, whether the change in the season is what gets you down or if you do suffer with S.A.D and the lack of sunlight is messing up your brain’s production of melatonin and serotonin, there may be some changes that need to be made, so here are some top tips for coping with the winter blues, that don’t involve shining a light in your face.

Number one: Exercise. Research has shown that just a daily one-hour walk in the middle of the day could be equally as helpful as using a light box. Light boxes give out very bright light at least 10 times stronger than ordinary home and office lighting and do have a significant effect on mood, but there’s a real light box in the sky that even on a grey day is still pumping out plenty of light. Exercise is great for your physical health anyway, so take advantage of the two-for-one benefit and do it for your mental health too. Doing it outside is very beneficial as you’ll get more sunlight, but any exercise will help.
It’s important to find an exercise that you enjoy doing though, aerobic exercises like running and cycling seem to have the best effect on serotonin production but if there’s any truth in the evolutionary theory as to why exercise helps, then it’s because we’re running to a reward rather than running away from a predator. There’s a big difference between running because you’re hunting and running because you’re being hunted. So choose a type of exercise that you are more likely to enjoy. Even yoga has very similar effects on mood as jogging does. But you could just do half an hour of playing the Wii Sports boxing game if you like!

Number two: Minimise stress. By learning some relaxation exercises you’ll have a significant effect on your mood. Have a massage, a guided meditation session or a session with a hypnotherapist. You can get some some free downloads by subscribing to my newsletter here. Once subscribed you’ll get a link in your email to a page where you can download or stream some guided relaxation audio that really will help.
Try and avoid making big changes in your life during the winter. Feeling down can easily make you anxious, which can make you feel as if you’re trapped and often leads people to hand in their notice at work and run away to a different job, or end a relationship, or move house, I’d suggest you wait. If you struggle this time of year then deliberately adding stress into your life by altering it significantly is unlikely to help.
If you feel the urge to make these sorts of big changes, just check how you were feeling a few months ago. Because if you were fine then, there’s a fair chance that you can be fine now too. Of course if you were trapped in a loveless relationship THEN it could be that getting out of it is exactly what you need. When it comes to mental health, no one size fits all obviously. Maybe see a counsellor or psychotherapist, if you see a hypno-psychotherapist then you’ll get double the benefit and they can teach you some relaxation exercises too.

Number three: Be social, tempting as it is to lock yourself away and binge watch Netflix until the spring it’s much better to get out and see people even if it’s just for a few hours. Socialising is great for mental health, even if all you do is catch up with a family member you haven’t seen for ages, a phone call is better than nothing, but meeting up and actually seeing each other is way more beneficial.
I know that when you’re low its hard to make the effort, but it’s when you’re low that you need people more. Just go and see one person if you like. One of the benefits of just catching up with one person, or even a small group, is that you can talk about the past easier. You can laugh about things that have happened. You can talk about holidays or experiences that could so easily be forgotten about. Because of what’s called "state dependent recall." Depression can cause us to only recall the bad times in our life.
Many experiments have shown that if you’re in a good mood it’s harder to remember negative events and vice versa. So if you have to put a bit of effort into remembering the good stuff by catching up with old friends to help you along then do so. You can get the ball rolling just by looking through some photos if you like.

Number four: Look after your body. Eating healthily is definitely going to help as people with S.A.D will often crave sugar and carbs and although these may boost energy briefly, there’s a rebound effect that makes us feel lethargic and lazy which pushes us towards more sweet or carbohydrate laden things. The rather unwelcome result being a few extra inches on the old beer belly which is rarely going to help us feel motivated or happy.
If you feel that you’re prone to this then make sure that you do eat healthily, look for food high in protein that will fill you up for longer, and plan your meals. Balance any craving for pasta and potatoes with plenty of veg and fruit and if that means that you have to shop a little more often because you need fresh things then do so. It’s a small price to pay for being happy and healthy. But looking after your body isn’t just about healthy food, it’s really important to keep yourself warm. So drink tea and wear junky jumpers. Have long baths whilst you listen to music, audiobooks and podcasts. Keep your central heating set to 20 degrees and roast your veg rather than eating cold salad. Research has even shown that keeping your body warm warm can reduce the winter blues by half!

And number five on my list of top tips for beating the winter blues you’re already doing, because that’s to soak up some positive and inspirational media. This is not the only podcast in the world that is passionate about improving mental health so have look through the charts and see who else you can listen to. Read more about the good stuff going on in the world, avoid the news and instead watch the satirical TV shows. You’re still going to keep up to date with what’s going on but it’s not going to be all doom and gloom and that’s really important. Negativity sells unfortunately. And in a world where the media are desperate for our attention many will do so by exaggerating the bad stuff to keep you alert and that’s not good for mental health.

So pull on your chunky jumpers and embrace the changing of the seasons.