Given that we’re heading into the final month of winter before things start to warm up and the days start to get a little longer, I’ve been reflecting on the seasons and how they can make a difference to the way we feel and the way we behave.
Summertime in Australia is a beautiful thing, and it’s clear how much of our national lifestyle is geared towards that extra heat and those extra long days. It’s not uncommon for after a hard day’s work to come home and then spend time in the outdoors, whether it’s a barbecue outside, or a swim, or playing (or just as likely watching) sport.
But when it gets to the height of winter, it’s a different story. The days’ sunshine has ended before the majority of commuters have gotten home. Once you’re off the train or the bus, it’s straight inside the house. For those who work a 9-5 day 5 days a week, winter can make the working week that much more of a drudge, leaving the weekend to cram in everything else. It’s not surprising therefore, that winter can come to be associated with lower moods.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a fancy clinical name for depression that cycles throughout the seasons, leaving people feeling okay in the summer months but depressed during winter. In Australia it’s less common, as we don’t have the situation our more northerly neighbours can experience in winter time – freezing temperatures, only a few hours daytime and little to no sunshine for days or weeks on end. That’s not to say however, that living a winter lifestyle that we have in Australia can leave us more vulnerable to lower moods and depression.
How can winter relate to feeling depressed?
As psychologists, one thing we have found consistently is that depression can start to form a spiral. Naturally as humans when we don’t feel 100%, we tend towards doing less things. Especially less pleasurable activities. As one of the key symptoms of having depression or low mood is a tendency to interpret events in a negative light, we can then turn this inactivity back on ourselves – “I’m so depressed I can’t even go for a run” for example. These negative thoughts about ourselves can then lead to further low moods. And the cycle continues from there.
For people who are currently experiencing depression, this spiral is made worse due to two key symptoms experienced by sufferers –
1. A tendency to feel less pleasure or interest in usual activities
2. a tendency towards increased feelings of tiredness
Both of these contribute to that lack of motivation, leading to more inactivity and thus lower moods. So when we think about winter, and how there is less opportunity to do activities, it can become the starting point for this vicious spiral.
So what can I do to beat back these winter blues?
The key to breaking this cycle is the fact that while we tend to not do things when we feel down or motivated, there is usually nothing physically stopping us. The blocks we have are most often mental in nature. What research into depression has shown, is that a deliberate focus on pleasurable activities can help lift moods and fight the symptoms of depression.
While the idea is simple, the execution is difficult. It is very difficult to push through and do pleasurable activity when the motivation is simply not there. But there are a few things you can do to make the process easier.
1. Think of the things you found most pleasurable when you weren’t feeling down.
What were your normal activities you took pleasure in that you’ve stopped doing them? Ask yourself, Why were they pleasurable for you?
2. Re-commit to these activities in a reduced fashion
Sometimes when we try to get back into everyday activity when we feel depressed, we hold ourselves to our previous standards before we were feeling down. Getting back into a 5 kilometre jog every morning might seem too overwhelming if you haven’t done it for 6 months, and that is going to lower your motivation. Start small, with a mind to getting bigger. But most importantly, schedule the activity in at a specific time, don’t wait for when you feel better or more motivated. The hardest part is often starting the activity.
3. Pay attention to how you felt before you started, how you feel afterwards and compare the results
Try to treat each activity like an experiment. Do the activity despite not feeling like it, and see if there is any difference in your mood as a result. Most likely you will have the sense that you achieved a goal, however small, and that thought is usually a rewarding and comforting one. It’s handy to keep a journal of this, so you have some actual information to refer to when you’re feeling at your worst and activity levels drop to their lowest.
Whether it’s winter or summer, long days or longer nights, the vicious spiral of depression and low motivation can be difficult to break out of. But following these initial steps can be the first ones towards reclaiming your old life back.
For more information on self-help tips for depression, be sure to check out the following websites:
The Black Dog Institute webpage: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
Beyond Blue: www.beyondblue.org.au
Adam Wright is a practitioner at Alpha Psychology. Feel free to check out his bio for more information or call Alpha at 9869 0377.