Stress, anxiety and depression

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Beating the winter blues

Key symptoms:

  • depression
  • sleep problems
  • lethargy
  • overeating
  • irritability
  • feeling down and unsociable

It's thought the winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects around 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people across northern Europe. It can affect people of any age, including children.

According to Sue Pavlovich of the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA), these 10 tips could help. "Everyone's affected differently by SAD, so what works for one person won't for another," she says. "But there's usually something that will help, so don't give up if the first remedy you try doesn't work. Just keep trying."

1. Keep active

Research has shown that a daily one-hour walk in the middle of the day could be as helpful as light treatment for coping with the winter blues. Read more about walking to get fit.

2. Get outside

Go outdoors in natural daylight as much as possible, especially at midday and on brighter days. Inside your home, choose pale colours that reflect light from outside, and sit near windows whenever you can.

3. Keep warm

If your symptoms are so bad that you can't live a normal life, see your GP for medical help. Being cold makes you more depressed. It's also been shown that staying warm can reduce the winter blues by half.

Keep warm with hot drinks and hot food. Wear warm clothes and shoes, and aim to keep your home between 18C and 21C (or 64F and 70F degrees).

For further information on what you can do to stay warm, including applying for grants to keep your home warm, read our article on keeping warm and well.

4. Eat healthily

A healthy diet will boost your mood, give you more energy and stop you putting on weight over winter. Balance your craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Read more about healthy eating.

5. See the light

Some people find light therapy effective for seasonal depression. One way to get light therapy at home in winter is to sit in front of a light box for up to two hours a day.

Light boxes give out very bright light at least 10 times stronger than ordinary home and office lighting. They're not available on the NHS and cost around £100 or more.

"Some people find that using a dawn simulator [a bedside light, connected to an alarm clock, that mimics a sunrise and wakes you up gradually] as well as a light box can enhance the beneficial effect," says Pavlovich.

6. Take up a new hobby

Keeping your mind active with a new interest seems to ward off symptoms of SAD, says Pavlovich. "It could be anything, such as playing bridge, singing, knitting, joining a gym, keeping a journal, or writing a blog. The important thing is that you have something to look forward to and concentrate on," she adds.

7. See your friends and family

It's been shown that socialising is good for your mental health and helps ward off the winter blues. Make an effort to keep in touch with people you care about and accept any invitations you get to social events, even if you only go for a little while.

8. Talk it through

Talking treatments such as counselling, psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you cope with symptoms. See your GP for information on what's available locally on the NHS and privately, or read this article on how to access talking treatments.

9. Join a support group

Think about joining a support group. Sharing your experience with others who know what it's like to have SAD is very therapeutic and can make your symptoms more bearable.

SADA is the UK's only registered charity dedicated to SAD. It costs £20 (£10 for concessions) to join, and you'll receive an information pack, regular newsletters, discounts on products such as light boxes, and contacts for telephone support.

10. Seek help

If your symptoms are so bad that you can't live a normal life, see your GP for medical help. 

Read more about how SAD is treated

Page last reviewed: 11/04/2015

Next review due: 11/04/2017

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