Winter blues

In the Northern Hemisphere, the darkest day of the year is on Monday 21 December. Also known as the winter solstice, this is the day when we have the shortest day and longest night of the year. Traditionally, during this time, cultures worldwide have held feasts, with fire and light being traditional symbols of celebrations.

The winter solstice leads up to Christmas celebrations. A time to enjoy the smells, sights and sounds of Christmas markets, go gift shopping, hang out with friends over a mulled wine and chat about how we’re going to spend time the holiday season.

With restrictions 2.0 casting a shadow over our celebrations, long-held traditions will likely be affected. That brings unprecedented challenges on multiple levels: physical, mental, emotional, as well as our relationships.

Add to that the effects of seasonal affected disorder (SAD). SAD symptoms correspond to those of depression. Reduced daylight affects our energy levels, mood, sleep and appetite (causing cravings for carbohydrates and indulgence). It can take a toll on our relationships too, especially when we’re spending extended periods of time indoors. There’s also a gender impact here – according to researchers at the University of Glasgow (UK), more women than men are prone to SAD.

Creating our circumstances

Circumstances are tough this year. That’s beyond doubt.

Nobel prizewinner George Bernard Shaw once wrote:

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.“

Drawing inspiration from this, how can we brace ourselves to pull through a tough winter ahead? What are ways in which we can be proactive about creating the circumstances to boost our energy and lift our mood?

It’s about going back to basics and looking for creative strategies to increase the light in our (and each others’) lives…

Back to basics

This winter, more than any other, it’s crucial to pay attention to our sleep, nutrition, exercise and self-care regime. Everyone will have personal preferences that make a difference. And then, there are sabotage patterns to watch out for too (eg. over-indulgence).

Whatever these are, it’s about the small constructive things we do daily that can go a long way to optimise our state of mind and counter the winter blues.

In addition to maintaining proper hygiene and respecting physical distancing, of course.

Creative strategies

If we already anticipate a challenging winter ahead, we can start preparing our shelters to brace ourselves before the storm comes. Experiment with what works. Be courageous to ditch the self-sabotage patterns that pull us down.

  1. Daylight simulation

I recall my first year at university when I drew the shortest straw with my accommodation for the entire year. I ended up with the smallest, darkest room, tucked away on the ground floor of my hall of residence. Whilst I had the benefit of an attached toilet (admittedly, a luxury in those days), there was just one tiny window opening onto a narrow airwell. Apart from when I was asleep, I had to keep the light on at all times to be able to see anything. I would have no idea whether the sun was shining, whether it was raining or snowing, until I went outside. 

I felt totally disorientated. It was confusing to switching between ‘day’ and ‘night’ modes several times a day, as I went inside and outdoors, between my tiny cell-like room and the outside world. Very quickly, I noticed the effect of the darkness on my mood and energy.

I decided that, if I could not get daylight in my room, I would simulate daylight. I did some research and invested in a small blue, non-heated desk lamp. The change was remarkable. Within a day, I felt much lighter and more like myself. My mood lifted, I felt so much happier. I relied on my blue lamp to get me through my first year.

That one small desk lamp was a lifesaver.

During the winter months, I find it particularly challenging to wake up when it’s still dark outside. Yet, I want to make the most of the day before dusk sets. This dichotomy led me to another life-changing discovery several years ago..

I got myself a sunrise alarm clock to help tap into my body’s biorhythm. 20 minutes before my alarm goes off, my room gets increasingly brighter and birds start chirping. The simulation of natural morning light and happy bird sounds not only prepare my body to wake up, it’s an uplifting way to rise and set the tone and rhythm for my day. When I get up early, I’m also ready to hit the sack earlier.

Thankfully, there’s some science behind it too ?.

According to the Sleep Foundation, when our body is exposed to light in the morning, our brain prompts our body temperature and cortisol levels to increase and wake us up. Conversely, a sunset setting on the alarm promotes the body to release melatonin to prepare for sleep.

Sleep experts also recommend going to bed early and rising early to promote better health, energy and boost performance. So there’s also some truth behind Benjamin Franklin’s old “Early to bed, early to rise..” adage here.

  • Colour psychology

One of my favourite hotels in Geneva has a mood light, which draws very much from the psychology of colours. Guests can play with the light setting in the room, which helps to induce their desired mood. Indeed, various studies have shown that colours can have a profound effect on our mood and behaviour. It can be used to ‘level out’ emotions and help create our desired mood.

When I subsequently moved homes, that experience triggered the idea to get some mood lights so that I could re-create my home environment too.

Resetting our circumstances

The above are just a few examples of my personal strategies to increase my exposure to daylight, illumination and colour to reset my experience.

Likewise, despite our situational circumstances this festive period, we can also choose to reset our circumstances. How can we be:

  • looking for constructive ways to bring more lightness and joy into our lives?
  • finding our own way to create meaningful ways and/or gifts to light up someone else’s life?
  • re-imagining – and making the most out of – this festive period?

Turn on the lights. Together, we can beat the blues.