Shorter days and longer nights approaching and your mental health can really suffer at this time of year.
As the nights draw in and the mornings get darker, it’s easy to find ourselves slipping into a more negative frame of mind. There are many reasons why this might happen and plenty you can try to minimise the effects for yourself.
So if you’re looking to support your mental health during winter, here a just a few ideas for you to try:
Don’t worry, these feelings are normal.
Life is full of cycles, whether it is the seasons or the length of days and nights or even our internal cycles. Our circadian rhythms affect everything from our digestive and immune systems to our pattern of sleep and normal mental processes.
They are governed by a master internal clock in the brain that is affected itself by the amount and timing of daylight. So it’s entirely normal, as the length of days and nights change, that we experience changes in our bodies and even our minds too.
The key to improving this situation is often to simply to be aware of these feelings and associated thoughts and to allow them to come and go without dwelling on them too much, if possible.
This is the basis of many mindfulness techniques and can be a really helpful way of dealing with unwanted or worrying thoughts and feelings at times of increased stress or change. But always remember, what you feel is what you feel; there’s no right or wrong about it, it’s just the way things are for you and that’s fine, whatever it is.
Feeling anxious or uncertain when darker days are present
Human beings are quite naturally more cautious during the hours of darkness. It’s a simple fact that we feel much more in control of our surroundings when we can see more clearly.
This isn’t a weakness or vulnerability, but a built-in self-protection system that has served us well over millennia and is at least partly responsible for our rise to being at the top of the evolutionary tree.
However, modern life does have more of an impact as we may well find ourselves staying indoors much more when the nights are longer or the weather is worse and that can lead to feelings of being stuck or trapped with our in-built protection systems on high alert for much longer periods.
This is tiring, at best, and exhausting, at worst, and feelings of tiredness and exhaustion only feed into our sense of a loss of control in our environment which increases our anxiety further.
The simplest way to counter these effects is to try to get out for a walk or some other gentle exercise for 30 minutes a day. Even just sitting outside for a while is better than being indoors all of the time. Exposure to daylight helps build vitamin D reserves but also brings a general sense of well being and control that is hard to mimic even with bright daylight lamps. If you’re able to exercise outdoors then that will increase the sense of control and well being further.
And remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Wear what makes you comfortable and get out there when you can.
Be kind to yourself and reap the rewards in better mental health…
It’s all too easy to get down on ourselves these days. There’s always that article or social media post that shows someone giving 110%, being positive about everything or being driven to success but this isn’t natural for most people and, oddly, such extremes of behaviour, because that’s what they really are, are often a sign of mental distress at some level.
If you can accept your feelings, and the thoughts that go with them, and treat yourself as you probably would treat others, then this can provide a huge uplift in your feelings and thoughts overall.
But being kind to yourself isn’t all about those naughty treats or hidden pleasures; it’s often about the things that you do which are really good for you in the here and now.
That might mean working, exercising or dieting but it also means resting and sharing time with people you care about whether at work, home or in other social settings or just spending time on your own, listening to music, watching tv, reading a book or whatever makes you feel content and comfortable.
Remember, it’s not necessary to feel happy all of the time. Happiness, like our days and seasons, is a variable commodity and it is perfectly normal to move between feelings of happiness and sadness or even from anger and frustration to success and contentment.
Our feelings are simply there to help us understand what’s going on in our bodies and the more we listen to them and accept them the more in control of ourselves we feel and that is always good for our mental health.
Gary Herrington, Psychotherapist