Article by Beverley Harvey
Anyone who suffers from depression and low mood, will know that winter can be a particularly challenging time. According to NHS statistics, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects around 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people across northern Europe. Add the SAD factor to the onset of menopause – a time when women are four times more likely to suffer from mental health disorders than women under forty-five – and frankly, it’s a wonder that many of us manage to function at all between November and March.
I have personally battled depression for the last nine years and I’ve realised that, like the moon, it waxes and wanes. Nobody would argue that depression is a serious illness and that it needs expert, professional help. BUT once support has been put in place, whether in the form of talking therapies such as counselling and CBT, or medication, there is much we do to manage our own symptoms.
Tips to beat the Winter Blues
Here are my totally unqualified and very personal tips to beating the winter blues – with or without the hinderance of the menopause.
- Get outside more: Unless physical limitations prevent it, being outside in grim weather is infinitely preferable to looking at it through the windows of a gloomy house. Dress for the elements – whether you opt for a stylish trench coat or a waterproof anorak, don the right shoes for the job and GO. Walk briskly, really noticing your surroundings; whether town or country, there’s always something wonderful to look at and nature – with its vibrant and ever-changing palette – can provide such solace.
- Move more: In addition to walking outside, take as much exercise as you can bear. When the rain’s lashing or it’s blowing a gale, the temptation to curl up on the sofa is immense but fight it. Exercise classes shared with others, such as Zumba or Pilates, or a sweaty gym workout will raise your heartrate and your temperature – and nine times out of ten, your mood, too.
- Eat well: We all know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and about the benefits of a healthy diet. However, in winter, it’s doubly important to keep up your five a day and make sure you get enough protein because colds, ‘flu and Noro virus all thrive in a malnourished body. Stews hit the mark; warming, tasty, cheap and full of fiber – and if you need further inducement, just add dumplings. Winter is not the time to worry about every last calorie, so cut yourself some slack.
- Don’t isolate: It’s tempting to batten down the hatches when you’re feeling low (and I am a serial offender as my friends will testify) but again, fight the urge; even if you only meet for a quick coffee. Talking always helps and hearing a friend’s news for an hour or so will give you a fresh perspective. That said…
- Know when to say no: Friends often divide into drains and radiators. I have friends, ‘radiators’, who make me glow and I relish every minute spent in their company. One in particular is a real tonic and brings out the best in me and makes me believe that anything is possible. But there are other friends who I avoid when I’m feeling down, because they make me feel worse…about everything…and just spending an hour with them can send me spiraling into despondency.
- Spoil yourself: As shallow as it sounds, a bit of retail therapy can help. I’m not talking about blowing a stack on designer clothes and handbags – getting into debt is the last thing you need if your mood is already low. But small, frivolous purchases can make you feel cossetted and increase your sense of self-worth. Buying a new lipstick, some organic chocolate, flowers for your desk, or a deliciously scented bath soak can perk your mood and stop you feeling like a drudge. The same goes for keeping up appearances – never underestimate the power of make-up and clean hair.
- Follow your nose: Our sense of smell can have a major effect on our mood and little is as evocative of the past. How many times have you walked into a room, and picked up a scent that has thrown you back to childhood? Whether it’s a warm smell of baking, or a perfume that reminds you of your mum tucking you in at night? Conversely, when something smells rotten, we recoil. A fragrant environment can be mood altering so using scented candles, reeds, plug-ins or sprays can make a tangible difference. Lavender can help with insomnia, vanilla and coffee are calming and zesty scents can make us feel energised – however our preferences are very personal; tea-rose, hyacinth and orange blossom all do it for me.
- Take comfort from animals: cuddling a cat, dog or other small-fury is said to calm a racing heart. There is something deeply satisfying about giving and receiving animal love. Dogs are my great passion; I’ve never met one I didn’t like. Cuddles with my dogs (both my present terrier, Brodie, and the soul mate I lost to old-age a year ago, my beloved Rodney) have brought me back from the brink and literally saved my life. If your circumstances prevent you from having animals at home, you can ‘rent’ them through organisations like BorrowMyDoggie.com. Volunteering at an animal shelter can also be rewarding, although it’s not as easy as it used to be due to health and safety restrictions.
- Indulge your creativity: If you’ve always wanted to paint, write poetry, dance, dressmake or act – just do it. New interests inject energy and hope into our lives and it really doesn’t matter whether you are any good at whatever you’ve chosen to do (and you could be brilliant!) or not. See what is on offer at your local adult education centre, or use online tutorials to get started.
- Read more, write more: When skies overhead are grey for weeks on end, escape to exotic locations via a good book. As well as being relaxing, reading can nourish the soul and broaden the mind. Writing can also provide an escape valve. When life feels utterly bleak, vow to keep a journal and record one good thing that happens every day – however small, even if it is only seeing a Robin on your garden fence, or hearing the laughter of a child in the supermarket. When you’re depressed, you may have to dig deep, but there will always be something. Three years ago, I combined the last two points by joining a creative writing class in the evenings. The effect was seminal as it led to me writing and publishing Seeking Eden, my debut novel.
Of course, if you’re reading this and are in a very dark place, none of it will help and there’s a point at which you must put your hand up and say, ‘I need help’ and make an appointment with your Doctor. These days, there is absolutely no stigma to depression and there is so much help available. You deserve it.