How To Stave Off Winter Blues

Even though it’s still early winter, a dear friend of mine has already started complaining about having “the Augusts”. It’s her not-quite-calendar-accurate term for the winter blues. She blames them on the short days and eagerly anticipates the return of daylight saving. A lot of Australians, it transpires, feel similarly but research shows the mood shift might have less to do with low light and more to do with our winter social lives and activity levels.

About 30 per cent of Australians report their mood drops during the colder months of the year, says Professor Greg Murray, head of Psychological Sciences and Statistics at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology. The mood shift can include feeling lethargic, finding it harder to wake up in the morning and craving stodgy food.

If this is your experience, Murray says, there are things you can do to help yourself stay buoyant.

  • “Try to get at least one hour of outdoor light each day, preferably in the morning.”
  • “Keep up your social life. Slot in some social events for the winter months that you can’t get out of. A Winter Solstice or Christmas in July dinner party could be a good idea.”
  • “Keep active by continuing activities such as exercise. Consider a gym membership during the colder months to keep you motivated and make the commitment to meet a friend at the gym.”
  • “Be realistic and understand that your productivity may not be as high as it is in the warmer months. You need to accept that there is an annual cycle and that you may not get as much done during winter.”

People who notice a mood shift in winter can mistakenly assume they have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression formally recognised in the 1980s, says Murray. SAD, however, is actually rare, affecting only about one in 300 Australians, he says.

A growing number of scientists also believe the influence of the seasons on mood has been overstated, more on which shortly. Depression, however, is not rare and can occur at any time of year. If you have been experiencing persistent low mood, take it seriously, be kind to yourself and seek support. Beyond Blue is a good place to start.

Early research into winter depression involved a great deal of excitement about sunlight and exposure to bright artificial light was shown to alleviate the symptoms. More recent research, however, has shown that more than half of people who experience winter SAD do not respond to bright light treatment. Furthermore, people who live in Iceland and the far north of Norway, where winter nights literally go on for months, have little experience of the disorder.

The way research into seasonal mood shifts has been conducted may also have led to exaggerated rates of prevalence, says Murray. Studies have typically asked participants to look back at their own past moods, which is notoriously unreliable. Some studies also asked leading questions, such as: “At what time of year do you feel worst?”.

There are strong cultural associations with winter, says Murray, such as bare trees, grey skies and hibernation. “If you ask people ‘at what time of year do you feel worst?’, the risk is that they’re not actually telling you how their mood varies with the seasons, they’re just reporting on cultural associations with the seasons.”

Murray has been part of a research team that has undertaken a randomised study of a group of Melburnians, asking them to report on their mood throughout the year without knowing why.

“We found there was a slight drop in mood … but the seasons only explained a very small percentage of the variation,” he says. “Lots of things affect mood and other influences were far more significant … For example, say it’s the middle of winter and you get told you’ve just got a promotion, then that is going to have more of an affect on your mood. Similarly, if it’s a beautiful spring day and you get a parking ticket, that’s going to have more of an affect on mood than season.”

No one knows exactly why winter depression is rare in Norway and Iceland, but it may be because the people who live there have all sorts of cultural rituals, developed over millennia, for living life in the cold and the dark. “They may be culturally primed to deal with winter,” says Murray. Light is certainly important to human health, but we are not just biological creatures, we are also social and psychological, and all of these elements play a role in our mental health, he says.

Here in Australia, mood-enhancing activities such as exercise and socialising can seem harder in winter, he says. There are fewer backyard barbecues, there may be more screen time at home in front of the heater, perhaps alone. Those of us more inclined to the blues might need to make a more conscious effort to build social and physical activity into the winter months. “What keeps you well in summer you should keep up in winter,” Murray says.

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