Heading Off The Winter Blues

We all go down in the dark winter months. Some people crash and develop what we call SAD, seasonal affected disorder, and need to take medication. Around this time of year many SAD sufferers will be starting to take St John’s Wart, a natural antidepressant, to build their system up before the clocks go back we and begin the dark months. There is a difference between the normal drop, often known as ‘The Winter Blues’ and depression. In the main SAD is a physiological thing, the result of chemical changes in our system in relationship to the drop in sunlight, the resulting reduction in levels of vitamin D and the subsequent drop in Serotonin, the wellbeing hormone, in the brain. While depression may have a physiological basis it is mainly a reactive condition. That means that the changes in our system may have been brought about through our experiences, events or a trauma. Whereas SAD only happens in the dark months depression can happen at nay time in the year.

What happens when we get SAD and depressed at the same time?

I am concerned. For months I have been talking with people that are having negative emotional responses to Covid, fear of death, fear of other dying, the lockdown and cabin fever, Irritability with partners and family, reduction in wages and money fears, redundancy fears, lack of exercise, increased weight, boredom, increased drug and alcohol consumption, not being able to go on holiday, straight frustrated anger that we can do nothing about out situation… the list becomes endless. I see helplessness and hopelessness.

My concern is that coming out of lockdown, assuming that we do not go back into lockdown, with a second wave of infection, we will walk right into the winter blues. That is a double whammy. I expect to see a big spike in depression and depression related issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide. To survive this winter we all need to be aware of our own problems, aware of the problems being faced by those around use and, where we can do something about it. We really are in the position…

…if we all look after each other we will all be okay!

If you are currently taking antidepressants ensure that you have good stocks and do not run out. You should never come off antidepressants in the dark months any way. Please do not drop your medications without referring to your doctor and ensure that you have a good support mechanism in place.

All of us will experience a drop in serotonin this winter which, due to Covid may feel more severe than usual. For me therapeutically the worst months are November, after the world seems to have suddenly gone dark, and then if it have been a bad dark winter February when the second wave of depression begins. January and February are also known as divorce season for solicitors which is, I suspect, partly due to the winter blues and partly due to that fact that people have been forced to be together for long periods of time. This year the effects of Covid could make this even greater. We know that in lockdown domestic violence has increased. This is normally seen as the violent man though this is not always that case. Men due suffer from domestic violence as well. The stats also tell us that reported violence from children to parents has increased by 14%.

The Monday nearest to January 20th, in 2021 it will be 18th, is known as Blue Monday and is often seen as the most depressing day of the year. This can be reactive to both Christmas and New Year, that are not always the happiest time, to the financial burden that it have left us to sort out. This year we can clearly add the winter blues and Covid.

So what can we do? – Number one is we need to start right now. The trick is keeping the positive endorphins in the brain flowing. These are my suggestions for now until the end of March 2021.

1: Check your weight. If you have put weight on during lockdown it will only get worse in the dark months. We all hit the carbs in the winter because they make our brain secrete serotonin. There are other ways of getting more serotonin, see below. But you may need to ask yourself, do you need to diet?

2: Move your body. We are told that we should be doing 10,000 steps a day. Actually this should really be more like 15 – 20,000 a day. A smart watch, a smartphone or a pedometer will enable you to keep track of your daily steps. Moving your body burns calories, reducing blood pressure, improves circulation, strengthens your heart and looks after your brain.

3: Exercise. Walking is good. Power walking is better. Most of us will also need to do some exercise. When you raise your heart rate for 20 to 30 minutes your brain responds by send out a deluge of positive hormones and endorphins into your system. This vastly increases your health but it also improves your mood and feelings of wellbeing. I prefer to run and cycle. For some it is the gym or an exercise class for other it maybe a dance. Whatever it is do it. But like everything listen to your body and if you have pre-existing conditions talk to your doctor before you begin an exercise regime. During lockdown many people walked or cycled to work to avoid public transport, perhaps we could carry this on. Remember there is never the wrong weather only the wrong clothing.

4: Start a hobby. Get engaged in something. This is the positive alternative to sitting down like a couch potato watching the TV. It doesn’t matter what hobby you take up as long as it interests you. Could be reading, knitting, doing your family tree, local history, carving, painting the list is endless.

5: Have some fun. Just like exercise and carbohydrates laughing makes your brain secrete serotonin. Watching a funny film, going to a comedy show, playing games doing anything just for the fun of it. You will feel so much better
6: Communication. Lots of people have shut down in lockdown and gone a little inside themselves. This can be a sign of mid depression. Talking to others and sharing what you are feeling and general ideas opens you mind, stimulates your brain and improves your relationships.

My resource for this podcast was the Couch to 5K app. You can tell when people are using it. They have headphones in and are listing to the coach in their ear. They are stopping and walking for a while and then of they go again and you can see the relief on their face when the coach tells them that it is now time to cool down and just walk. I have seen some big people doing the app during lockdown and I have nothing but praise for them, ‘well done’. This a fabulous app that enables you to really run. I have seen people who have said that they could never run taking on 5 and 10K races with a smile.

So, look, the past months have been tough and it is not over yet. It will always last longer than we want it to. We do have choices. We do not have to drop into the pit of depression and winter blues. To get the best effect from these ideas this winter ‘Now’ would be a good time to begin.

Take care, be happy and enjoy whatever is left of the summer and, enjoy the winter as well.

Sean x

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