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The Winter Blues

By Jeremy Ireland, Psychotherapist on June 2, 2018 in Other

World’s second keenest, by Edward Snowden.

The end of autumn brings about mixed feelings for me. As a keen surfer, there is a definite upside; it means fewer people in the water and therefore less competition for waves, which are considered to be of superior quality at this time of year. The downside? It’s time to dust off the steamer and brace for the cold.
As the water temperature drops and the wind chill kicks in, you may be forgiven if your mind starts to wander – while waiting for a wave with icy blue hands – to the house of Winterfell, muttering to yourself, “Winter is coming”.
Well, winter is now upon us and for some this means much more than just a change in the weather. Have you ever woken up on a cold, wet day and thought to yourself, “I’d rather just stay in bed today”? Well, at this time of year those feelings may be more justified than you realise.
Winter brings with it the effects of colder temperatures and fewer daylight hours. Just as a flower needs the sun to open up each day, we too feel the effects of light and heat. It’s not surprising then to learn that there can be a direct relationship between our mood and the seasons. In short, for some people, when the light is low, the days are short and the air temperature is colder, their emotional well being can slump.
To get some perspective on how daylight and temperature can affect mood, I cast my mind back to the one and only time I experienced a Northern Hemisphere winter. I was more than just a bit north – I was up as far as the Arctic Circle – and I was totally unprepared for how such a winter could affect my state of mind. It was minus fifteen degrees and each day had less than three hours of what could best be described as a dull twilight. As such, it was difficult to judge the time and my body clock went completely haywire – it was even difficult getting a handle on meal and bed times. My overall mood was down and my body felt like it wanted to go into some weird sort of quasi-hibernation.
Cold wintery days, as irritating as they can be, are more of an inconvenience for the majority of people, but the effects can be more severe for others. Although this seasonal cycling of mood tends to be felt more by people living closer to the poles where the winters are long and dark, the effects of winter can still be felt here in Australia.
Evidence suggests that up to 25 per cent of the population in colder climates have some vulnerability to such seasonal cycling. In fact, there is a condition termed ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD), a depressive disorder also known as ‘winter depression’ that can begin in late autumn and lift with the onset of spring. Excessive sleep, increased appetite, weight gain and low mood are often seen as symptoms of such ‘winter blues’.
Research suggests that exposure to light is one way to lift mood. Better still, sunlight – a natural provider of vitamin D – and exercise, especially outside, are shown to help. One should avoid eating excessive amounts of stodgy wintery foods, which may make you feel good in the short-term but will only cause you to gain weight. And don’t sleep in for the sake of it; get up, keep warm and get amongst it. Indeed, the take home message I received from my time in the northern winter was, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”.
So, next time you to start crave that north-facing sun or feel like migrating to the Gold Coast for the winter, you’ll know that your craving is a natural response to those winter blues. Remember though, if mood is affecting your ability to function and impacting your thoughts and feelings, seasonally affected or otherwise, seek help from your GP or mental health professional.