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Winter Blues

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

wintery, muddy path through the woods with bare trees and a pale sky
This may be the best we can hope for outside at this time of year

It's cold and dark outside. It seems like it's been raining for weeks, and the idea that I can catch early morning sunlight to optimise my mood and energy - which I seem to keep hearing right now- is laughable. I mean, I leave the house at 6am most weekdays, which is basically still the middle of the night, and by the time the sun's shown its face (if it even does!) I'm at my desk and unable to see it.

During the day, if the weather's not too grim, I might nip out for a lunchtime walk but most of the time I don't fancy being drenched and having to sit in the office like that all afternoon.

I know we're supposed to be motivated to get the Christmas weight off in January, but going out in the dark and rain is a lot less enticing than sitting in with the fire on listening to the storm. And don't even mention going out until after that desperately awaited January payday (but I still thought getting paid before Christmas was a good idea at the time, didn't I!). Or before the end of dry January- to be honest, best to stay in and binge on Netflix until it's all over, my body clock doesn't even know when bedtime is anymore, so what the hell.

If this isn't a recipe for the winter blues, I don't know what is.

According to the NHS, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, also known as winter depression) affects as many as 2 million people in the UK. Although it's not completely understood, the evidence points to lack of exposure to sunlight disrupting hormones that regulate our mood and sleep cycles. Serotonin and Melatonin, which govern mood, motivation, appetite and sleep can be affected by the shorter days.

Not getting to see much daylight at all, for example because during the short days of winter the weather is overcast for days at a time and/or you spend a lot of time indoors, is also thought to disrupt the body's "internal clock": meaning that it's very difficult to keep a regular sleep/wake schedule and you might not feel tired at the 'right' time. Sleep deprivation resulting from a disrupted sleep schedule can itself cause depression, irritability, anxiety, problems with memory and a weakened immune system (no wonder colds and flu are having a field day).

Despite exercise having been shown to have a major impact on people suffering from mild to moderate depression, the reality of getting out and exercising in the winter can be tough. Cold, bad weather, illness, lack of energy due to the aforementioned poor sleep...

And when it comes to financial pressures at this time of year, one recent survey found that around 28% of Brits fund Christmas spending through credit cards and buy now pay later arrangements, meaning that we're likely to be feeling the pinch well into the new year. No wonder you might be tempted to cancel that well intentioned gym membership!

In fact, this all seems to be a bit of a vicious circle. We see less sunlight, so we sleep poorly, feel tired, irritable and less like going out. As a result we exercise less, which actually opens us up to feeling more depressed and unhealthy. We then feel more socially isolated, which itself can lead to poor sleep, impaired cognitive function and depression.

So what can be done if you're suffering from the winter blues? I'm no doctor (and if it's seriously affecting your daily life, I'd recommend you see one) but I've developed some strategies that work for me:

1) Set your sleep/wake schedule (your phone/wearable device can probably help you with this) and try to stick to it, even at weekends. Keep away from bright light, and keep TV, computer and phone use to an absolute minimum during your 'wind down' (around 1hr before sleep).

2) Watch what and when you eat. A heavy meal in the evening might make you feel sleepy, but too much carbs and sugar could result in feeling wide awake at bed time. Where possible I try to keep my evening meal free from starchy foods and to have eaten it not less than 2hrs before bed.

3) Beware caffeine! If you're feeling tired during the day, you might be tempted to prop yourself up with caffeine, but caffeine's quarter life is around 12 hours, meaning that 25% of the caffeine from a cup of coffee you drink at 2pm is still affecting your brain at 2am. I usually only consume caffeine (as coffee) before 11am, but watch out for caffeine in fizzy drinks, cakes, sweets and even 'health drinks' like Kombucha.

4) Beware alcohol! Alcohol can disrupt your REM sleep and mean you don't get a full sleep cycle even when you've been in bed for the right amount of time (or longer). Even one glass of wine will do it, so try to keep alcohol consumption down to an absolute minimum (see, I found another reason to stick to dry January!).

5) Exercise early in the morning to boost your cortisol and feel more awake soon after you get up. Cortisol is the 'stress hormone' but it's a good guy if it peaks early in the day in terms of our sleep/wake schedule and feeling ready for action.

Woman in waterproofs standing on a hill next to a muddy path, holding up her hand to a rainbow in the sky
Making the most of a very soggy January walk in full wet weather gear!

6) Invest in bad weather gear- get outside during the day even if the weather is terrible. I recently purchased a 'windproof' pagoda shaped umbrella because I'd had enough of my umbrellas being blown inside out, and it really works! I've also collected some good outdoor gear down the years, which means I can go into the countryside even if it's throwing it down and still feel cosy and warm. (Side note- if you also like walking, have you seen my yoga sequence for walkers on tiktok?)

7) Do a 'wind down' yoga practice before bed or immediately before sleep, especially if not feeling tired. Nothing energetic; maybe a Yin sequence incorporating supported forward folds to move the energy inwards, or my personal favourite, a Yoga Nidra (aka "yogic sleep" practice) in bed. Find some great Yoga Nidras to try here.

Taking a yoga class can also be beneficial for beating the winter blues. Yoga can get you out of the house and gives you the chance to meet like-minded people.

Movement practices can be tailored to your physical ability and level of energy in 1-1 or small group work. If you want the social benefits of joining a bigger class, you might like to choose the approach to yoga that most suits your current activity level. Hatha classes are usually slower in terms of poses and involve different types of practice including pranayama breathwork and meditation. Restorative yoga involves holding comfortable, static poses over props for up to 15 minutes to feel rested and refreshed, whilst Yin yoga tends to hold poses for up to 5 minutes and stretches out the deep tissues.

Woman lying on her side using a yoga blanket and a bolster
Restorative yoga using props is a wonderful way to feel rested

It can be tough when you suffer from SAD, and right now it may be difficult to imagine feeling different when the spring rolls in with longer, warmer days and much more sunshine. As the wheel of the year turns, hold on for brighter days.

If you'd like to book a class to support mental and physical health during the winter months, I can deliver tailored sessions in person and online as 1-1 or small group private classes. These can include specific approaches to yoga if requested. If you live or work in North Leeds, you might also like the option to book on to my weekly all-levels class in Alwoodley where you can practice yoga with a friendly group of local people.

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