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Winter Wellbeing

Discover practical tips and strategies to take care of your mental health during the winter season. Learn about managing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), staying active, maintaining a healthy routine, and finding joy in winter activities.

Winter Wellbeing
Cuddly pets not only keep us warm, but are proven mood-boosters. Photo by Kate Stone Matheson

Winter can be a challenging time of the year when it comes to maintaining well-being. We are extraordinarily resilient, but shorter, colder days and adverse weather conditions can lead to stressors that impact finances, and mental, and physical health. Daily living costs increase through increased heating costs, increased costs of produce, and unexpected costs due to unpredictable weather - leading to stress and uncertainty. Immunity can be compromised as our bodies come under increased stress keeping us warm and healthy, putting us at risk of colds, flus, and corona virus.

Our mental wellbeing may also become more vulnerable. Depression can have a seasonal pattern, known colloquially as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. While this impacts a reasonably low percentage of the population, close to a third of us may experience seasonal sensitivities which can impact our wellbeing in discernible ways. Typical features of autumn/winter seasonal sensitivity may include familiar features of depression such as low mood, low energy, diminished interest in or pleasure gained from normally enjoyable activities, or feelings of hopelessness, and will also tend to include an increased need for sleep, increased sense of fatigue, and carbohydrate cravings with increased appetite and weight gain.

Whilst driving home from a morning walk I had to pull the car over as a stunning light was bursting through the trees and the light just bounced off the bright white frosty ground
Seek sunlight when you can. Photo by George Hiles.

The good news is there are plenty of strategies we can employ, either to proactively protect and maintain our wellbeing in anticipation of the winter, or to combat those times when the chill and darkness has us feeling especially dark ourselves.

1. Plan for changing seasons

Our minds and bodies like predictability, and routine. The more certain our environment, the more we can control outcomes and make sure we survive and thrive. Because of this, establishing daily routines can have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing. As the days become shorter maintaining routines becomes more challenging as our typical visual cues can change, but preparing for these changes in advance can help make the winter-transition easier. For example,

  • Plan to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day and ensure that you are getting the right amount of rest for your body. With less exposure to sunlight, our sleep-wake cycle can be disrupted but well-established routines can help.
  • Consider how you might need to change your exercise habits if you’re not able to exercise outside as you typically might. This might involve gym memberships, online yoga classes, or exercising in your lunchbreak when the weather is fair.
  • Plan, where you can, for the increased costs of winter. This might be budgeting for increased heating costs, putting some money aside in case of emergency, or stocking up on cold and flu remedies when you can.

2. Seek nature and sunlight whenever possible

Being in nature has broad wellbeing benefits and can boost our mood and wellbeing through opportunities for calm, tranquility, sensory stimulation, and connecting with the present moment. Research has demonstrated that urban greenery can impact on mental wellbeing, and adolescents do better when there is green space near their homes.

Exposure to sunlight is a powerful mood booster and is one of the most effective treatments for SAD and seasonal sensitivity. Decreased sunlight exposure can impact our production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating our mood. With shorter days, more time spent inside, and layered clothing when we do head outside, we limit our exposure to the sun and can be at risk of low mood. To counter this,

  • On sunny days, try and make time to sit outside in a sheltered area and soak up the sun. If you can do this somewhere where you can enjoy a view of plants and trees, even better.
  • Check the forecast and try to plan some trips to the park, beach, or your favourite walking spot if the weather allows.
  • Consider if you can change your working habits or routines to increase your sunlight exposure throughout the workday.

3. Maintain your physical wellbeing

Our physical and mental wellbeing are closely tied, as demonstrated by Te Whare Tapa Wha (the house with four walls), a Māori model of holistic wellbeing.

When we can better maintain our physical fitness, through intentional movement and exercise, it can help with managing stress, increasing energy levels, and boosting our mood. In fact, a recent meta-analysis demonstrated that physical activity, especially higher intensity activities, is comparable to, and at times more effective than, both psychotherapy and medication in the treatment of mild-moderate depression, anxiety, and mental distress. Furthermore, physical activity stimulates production of serotonin, mitigating the impacts of decreased exposure to sunlight.

4. Boost your positive emotions and increase your resilience

Boosting our positive emotions supports with the impact of stress and negative emotional states, such as low mood or anxiousness. Highly resilient people tend to have an energetic approach to life, are curious and open to new experiences, and have high positive emotionality which they deliberately elicit through humour, relaxation, and optimism.

When we can manage stress effectively, we support the healthy functioning of our bodies. Most significantly in terms of maintaining health in winter, ongoing stress can impact the functioning of our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to winter colds, flus, and corona virus. Luckily, there are many ways to boost positive emotions and effectively manage stress. For example,

  • Seek out the people and experiences that bring you joy and fill your cup. Meet up with friends and whānau (family), and engage in regular acts of kindness, e.g., check in and offer support to others if you feel able. Spend time on an enjoyable hobby or pleasurable activity – music, reading, cultural experiences. Spend time with your pet if you have one. Find some cute or funny pictures or videos of animals if you don’t have one!
  • Prioritise rest and relaxation. This might involve practices that calm the nervous system such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or deep breathing; self-care activities such as massage; or simply taking a nap or sitting in the sun. ‘Worry Time’ allows us to schedule time when it’s convenient to focus on those things that might undermine the process of rest. This way we know that we can let worries go for now when our focus is relaxation, allowing us to gain the full benefit of time to relax and replenish our energy reserves and mental and emotional resilience.
  • Begin a daily gratitude and optimism practice – reflect on something you are grateful for and something you are looking forward to each day.

Remember that if you are concerned about how you are feeling, it’s important to ask for help. Check in with your friends and support network, talk to your existing healthcare professionals such as your GP or therapist, or use Clearhead’s Find a Therapist tool to connect you with someone who can help.

The beauty of spring
Photo by Jonas Kaiser / Unsplash

I orea te tuatara ka patu ki waho

Solutions are found through creative perseverance [Māori proverb]

If you are not in immediate danger but require crisis support:  mentalhealth.org.nz
Suicide Call Back Service
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal. Call 1300 659 467. — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Lifeline provides 24-hour crisis counselling, support groups and suicide prevention services. Call 13 11 14
, text on 0477 13 11 14 (12pm to midnight AEST) or chat online.
Beyond Blue
Beyond Blue aims to increase awareness of depression and anxiety and reduce stigma. Call 1300 22 4636, 24 hours/7 days a week, chat online or email.
Kids Helpline
Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free 24/7 confidential and private counseling service specifically for children and young people aged 5 – 25. Call 1800 55 1800.
MensLine Australia
MensLine Australia is a professional telephone and online counselling service offering support to Australian men. Call 1300 78 99 78, 24 hours/7 days a week, chat online or organise a video chat.
Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling
Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling provides 24/7 free and confidential counselling to anyone who has served at least one day in the ADF, their partners and families. Call 1800 011 046.
If you are not in immediate danger but require crisis support:  healthdirect.gov.au