How to protect your mental health and cope as we head into winter

Although the wintertime can be a time for celebration, festivities, and socialising, for many people it can also induce feelings of loneliness, stress, and anxiety. With our physical environment also changing around us, with shorter days and less sunlight, we might need to take extra care to monitor our mental health over these colder months. 

Challenges in the winter

One of the ways we might find our wellbeing is impacted in the winter months is due to the change to our environment. These changes can present different challenges and for some people already living with poor mental health or conditions such as seasonal affective disorder, be particularly hard to navigate.

Seasonal affective disorder 

While seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can occur at any time of year, it most commonly affects people in the autumn and winter months when the days are shorter and there is less daylight. As it is a mental health condition similar to depression, it is different from favouring certain seasons over others. 

Symptoms include feeling low, irritable, and fatigued, for a prolonged period and often recurring at similar times each year. 

You can read our dedicated overview page on seasonal affective disorder for more information. 

Circadian Rhythm 

Your circadian rhythm, also known as your “body clock,” is responsible for the control and regulation of multiple biological processes, including mood regulation. Multiple studies have shown that an irregular circadian rhythm, or disturbances to our circadian rhythm, affects our mood and may trigger depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. Since circadian rhythm is regulated by (amongst other things) our first exposure to light in the morning, it’s no surprise that the winter months can cause our circadian rhythm to fall out of sync. 

Since the sun rises later in the United Kingdom in the winter months, workers may miss out on sunlight entirely, school-age children may not see sunlight until later in the day, and we may even miss out on sunlight if we stay at home and keep the curtains closed. 

It’s important that we see as much sunlight in the winter months as possible and that we take care of our circadian rhythms by practicing good sleep hygiene. 

  • If you work in a job that means you have little access to sunlight in the winter months, you can take steps to reduce how much this affects you. Have your lunch outside if possible, or by a window if you’re unable to go outside. You can also check if your employer allows for extended lunch breaks in order to maximise your exposure to daylight. 
  • Encourage school-age children to get plenty of time outside when possible, whether during breaktimes at school or during the weekend. At home, you can open the curtains and let in as much sunlight as possible in the early morning, thereby resetting your circadian rhythm. 
  • Light therapy, usually by purchasing a special light, can be extremely helpful in giving our circadian rhythm a boost. Using this light at home or work, having it nearby helps to reset our body clock and promote better emotional health as a result. 
  • Avoid exposure to bright light at night, including bright artificial lights and devices such as phones, laptops, and tablets. These can disrupt your circadian rhythm and may contribute to low mood and associated disorders, such as seasonal affective disorder. In general, it’s best to avoid screens and bright lights at least 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime. Instead, use low, muted lights for reading, or try audiobooks, meditation and mindfulness, or other sleep sounds such as nature sounds or soothing music. 
  • Try to get a full night’s sleep, especially in the darker months when a lack of sleep may contribute further to symptoms of SAD. Most adults need around seven to nine hours per night. 
  • Try to get up at the same time every day as this will help to regulate your circadian rhythm and help to match it to your sleep-wake cycle. In the morning, exposure to bright light, such as sunlight or light therapy lamps, helps to reset your circadian rhythm and synchronise it with your sleep-wake cycle. 

While it might take a while to adjust, working to correct your circadian rhythm can have a tremendous effect on your mental health all year round and help reduce the symptoms of depression and other mood disorders. 

The impact of Christmas

There are many reasons why Christmas time can be particularly challenging. There’s the financial pressure to give gifts, the social expectation to be merry and happy, and for those of us who feel isolated or lonely, we’re likely to feel these feelings intensify around the festive period when others appear to be surrounded by loved ones.

80% of people we surveyed in 2023 told us their mental health symptoms get worse over the festive period, while nearly three-quarters said the season made them feel more lonely – even when they’re surrounded by family and friends. If you’re struggling to manage your mental health around Christmas, you’re not alone. It’s important to remember that there are no right or wrongs as to how you’re supposed to feel and be over the festive period. Do what is best for you, and find out how to look after yourself as priority over Christmas. Here’s what you told us about how Christmas makes you feel, and what you do to look after yourself during this time:

“I don’t have a huge number of friends or a large family. Christmas time can be difficult when it feels like everyone is busy socialising and having fun, which is largely thanks to social media. I want to try and remind myself that it’s ok that I don’t tend to go out drinking or partying, I am who I am and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Financial worries tend to peak for me around this time each year. The last couple of years we have done a ‘Secret Santa’ style arrangement instead, which has worked well as it means we’re all buying for less people. I would recommend this concept to people who are worried about their money.”

“I often feel more stressed and busy in December as I find there’s more arrangements such as seeing friends and family. I’m going to try and block out weekends and days for myself this year to make sure I don’t burnout and get to have some me time still!”

Aside from Christmas, winter can still provide challenges for many of us.

Your tips to manage your mental health this winter:

“In the winter months, we can be going to work in the dark and ending the working day in the dark! If you’re able to work flexibly, amend your working hours to give yourself a generous break at lunchtime which could enable you to enjoy the daylight and get outside for a longer walk or outing.” 

When it gets dark earlier, the evenings can feel longer and more isolating. Ive been trying to make sure every evening I have a specific activity or task. It doesn’t have to just be socialising, it can be indoors – whether it’s a puzzle or cooking something special, I’ve found having something to do that isn’t just watching TV or being on my phone has helped to boost my mood.”  

It’s easy to forget to drink water during the colder months, when you might naturally be less thirsty or not fancy a cold glass of water. However, it’s so vital that we keep our bodies hydrated even in autumn and winter – good for the mind, body and soul! It’s also important to remember the other basics of good wellbeing, including sleep and exercise, as I notice these all help keep my mood higher.”

“I often feel less energised at this time of year and sometimes this means I make fewer or no social plans. Through the years I’ve realised how important it is to keep socialising and find ways to have human connection during these months, even if it’s cold and grey outside, as you almost always return home feeling uplifted and deserving of that cosy sofa time.”   

“It’s recommended for adults in the UK to supplement vitamin D into their diet, as the strength in the sun isn’t strong enough at this time of the year for our bodies to absorb it. I’ve been taking vitamin D for a couple of months now and have noticed a difference in my energy levels.” 

“Keep connected! I can go into hibernation mode in the winter and not want to leave my house! I sometimes have to push myself to keep up social connections, and always feel better for it. It can be a FaceTime or a text if you don’t feel like meeting up in person, any connection with friends and family is better than no connection.”

“I try to plan something exciting that I can look forward to. Sometimes the winter months can drag and it seems like it’s never going to be sunny again when it’s been raining for days on end! If I can, I’ll plan a trip away or make future plans with friends and family so I have some dates in the diary to look forward to.”

“I use the winter months to take a step back, relax and just enjoy being cosy. Don’t feel guilty for letting yourself take the time to slow down. It’s okay to binge-watch a programme every once in a while or have a lie in. Don’t beat yourself up for being ‘lazy’ – everyone deserves a break and the festive period especially can provide the ideal time to do this.”

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