Winter has arrived and Jacqui Manning wanted to share some tips on maintaining your emotional health during the colder months, with a particular focus on getting a good night’s sleep.

What happens to our mood in winter?

When the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, many of us will experience the ‘winter blues’. We get out of our normal rhythm, possibly exercising less, sleeping more (or less sometimes) and this can lead to several problems:

o   Symptoms of depression – from mild to severe, sometimes leading to a diagnosis of SAD (Seasonally Affected Disorder). SAD is less common in the Southern Hemisphere than the Northern Hemisphere, however it does occur.

o   Fatigue/low energy

o   Lack of motivation

o   Sleep disturbances

o   Food cravings

o   Higher stress levels

o   Mood swings

Why does winter affects our moods?  

Circadian Rhythms

The body’s circadian rhythm is like an ‘internal body clock’ and is located in the brain. They are biological cycles that regulate certain functions, like sleep and wake cycles, and are roughly 24 hours in length. The regulation of the circadian rhythm depends on the sunlight we receive, so when the days are shorter in winter, it may mean the circadian rhythm is disrupted and the brain functioning altered.

For example, your body produces hormones like cortisol in the morning to stimulate you to wake up, and releases melatonin (another hormone) at night when you need to sleep. These cycles or rhythms can be disrupted due to the absence or presence of light, and this can cause low mood or depression.

Lack of sunlight

We need sunlight or natural light to produce vitamin D, which is vital to our mood and wellbeing. With reduced hours of daylight and the cold temperatures meaning we access the outdoors less in winter, our vitamin D levels can be depleted without us even realising. Dr John Briffa refers to a study where just five days of treatment with vitamin D (at a dose of 400 or 800 IU per day) was found to improve winter mood.

I wanted to focus on the aspect of sleep and how to get a better restful sleep during winter (and beyond!) as it’s a very common problem amongst my clients.

Firstly, examine your sleep hygiene.

  • Going to bed at roughly the same time every night and waking up at the same time, gets your body working on a healthy rhythm and cycle and establishes a good routine. We do it for our kids (and we know it works!), so we need to apply the same principle to ourselves.
  • Beyond the time you go to bed, develop a calming wind-down routine each evening, such as having a cup of herbal tea a few hours before bedtime or listening to a relaxation CD.
  • Screen-time – we know we are addicted, but beyond the mental stimulation our devices give us, they are having a direct physical effect by emitting stimulating blue light which lowers the amount of melatonin (or the ‘sleep hormone’) being secreted by our brains. In other words, the actual act of looking at a screen 30-60 minutes before bedtime is blurring the boundary between your brain’s sleep and awake activity. Put your phone/tablet in a drawer an hour before your bedtime and ignore it.
  • If you use your phone as your alarm, switch it to ‘airplane mode’ (and don’t touch it again!). Even when we are asleep our unconscious minds are still working (thank goodness, or we wouldn’t breathe!), and when a text or email alert comes through it can wake us up and/or keep us in the light stages of sleep, missing out on our vital REM sleep cycles.
  • A common problem my clients have is waking up at 2 or 3 am and not being able to return to sleep. If this is your problem, keep a pen and notepad by your bed and if you find yourself worrying about a problem and/or trying to remember something important, jot it down. This gives your brain the unconscious command to relax – the info will be there for you in the morning – and you’re more likely to drift off again.
  • If ‘switching off’ is a recurring problem you have, it might be worth talking to a psychologist like me to learn some effective techniques to manage your load (such as tapping – for more details ask at Darling Street Health).

We need sleep to restore our physical and emotional selves, so we need to make a little effort during winter to stay as healthy as possible. Get outside during the daylight as much as possible. Go for a walk at lunch-time or try for a walk before lunch. During winter you can be travelling to and from work in the darker hours, which confuses your circadian rhythms, so make sure you try for as much natural light as possible.

Jacqui Manning is one of Darling Street Health’s psychologists and is available in the clinic on Tuesdays. She regularly appears in the media – including Channel Nine’s MORNINGS show, Yours & Woman’s Day magazines amongst others – because she has a passion for encouraging people to pay attention to their emotional health.

For more on Jacqui go to www.thefriendlypsychologist.com.au or call 9555 8806 to book a session. 

Here’s a link to Jacqui’s latest MORNINGS appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lOXrAZuCkQ&feature=youtu.be