Sunshine for the soul: Beating the winter blues and boosting your mental health

The short, dark days of winter can take a toll on our mood and mental health, but there are other ways to let the light and energy back into our lives.


Here we are, in mid-January. The joy and warmth of the festive season has dissipated into the early morning cold and the boxes of Celebrations have only Bounties left, if anything at all. Work is back in full flow and with nothing much in the calendar between here and spring, the weeks ahead can seem an awfully long and cheerless stretch.

Experiencing a low mood is not uncommon in January. Without something to look forward to, the short days of winter weigh on us all the more heavily. Getting up in the dark to go to work and arriving home in the dark isn’t just something to moan about to colleagues in the morning over our instant coffee; days with reduced hours of sunlight are a very real drag on our biological rhythms.

Prof Andrew Coogan, a behavioural neuroscientist from Maynooth University, explains that, “During the winter and the delaying of dawn, we tend naturally to sleep a little later and a little longer. What happens … is that our alarm clock is going off at the same time, but our body is saying I still need that little bit of extra sleep, so we’re waking up even earlier relative to our biological needs and our physiological demands, and that’s why it feels harder to wake up during the winter months.”

So the next time your alarm starts to buzz from under your pillow, your bed feels unreasonably cosy and the idea of poking even a toe out from beneath your duvet seems like an impossible ask, try to give yourself a little kindness and recognise that feeling the January slump is not just a bout of laziness on your part. Comparing your early start in winter to your morning wake-up in the middle of June is like apples and oranges to your body, from a physiological standpoint. When you’re brushing your teeth blearily and steeling yourself to head out into the dark, give yourself a little pat on the back for managing to overcome your own biology to brave the cold morning – it’s not an easy task!

In winter, feelings of sleepiness and heaviness can linger on into our day, creating a feeling of low mood and lethargy which can seem difficult to overcome. But there are ways to conquer the winter blues, even on the most miserable mornings.

Get some winter sun

Exposing ourselves to sunlight is crucial, particularly in the mornings. Winter sunlight is hard to come by, but even the diffuse light we get on our face during a 10-minute walk on an overcast day is enough to send the message to our body to boost serotonin production, which in turn improves our mood and decreases feelings of anxiety and depression. As an added bonus, the vitamin D our skin produces when exposed to sunlight helps us to combat all sorts of nasty winter colds and flus and helps to strengthen our immune system.

Get moving

We’re probably all tired of being told this one, but exercise genuinely is one of the very best things you can do to alleviate a low mood during winter. My GP is constantly prescribing a swim or a good long walk when I get into a funk, and as much as I might grumble about it, she’s almost always right.

A walk in the summer sun is one thing, but if you’re like me and glancing outside on a winter’s evening to see the rain streaming down a darkened window is enough to send you diving back to the safety of your pile of blankets on the sofa, never fear. For some (my husband included) a jog in the dark or a night-time swim or some other sort of invigorating and healthful activity is the only way to keep spirits high on winter’s long, dark nights and those people I applaud heartily from the warmth of my blanket fort, which I am not leaving. Luckily, for the more sloth-like amongst us, there are exercise options that don’t involve leaving your sitting room. I’m a big fan of Yoga with Adriene, a YouTube series with videos ranging from a full 40-minute workout to 10 minutes of ‘bedtime yoga’, which can be done entirely in bed and in pyjamas. (As a new mother and perpetually lazy person, this is right up my alley.)

YouTube has such a wide range of follow-along exercise videos, from dance to Pilates to kettlebells, that there’s something to suit everybody, even on the days where all you can manage is a few cat-cows in bed before collapsing.

In terms of countering the gloom of winter, just 10 minutes of exercise a day has too many benefits to list, but includes reduced stress, boosted energy levels, improved sleep, better self-esteem and even improvements in sex drive.

Look out for the signs of SADness

For many of us, once the wintry sun starts to stream in through the windows and we’ve had our morning beverage of choice, an interaction or two with another human being or a small amount of exercise, we’ll be back to our usual selves for the day. But, for some, the winter blues can persist for days or even weeks. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, affects 7% of people in Ireland annually and those who suffer from it experience brain changes similar to those experiencing major depressive disorder. SAD occurs specifically when we are not exposed to enough sunlight during the day, impacting our body’s ability to regulate our mood, appetite, sleep patterns and internal body clock.

Lots of people find the winter to be very challenging when it comes to managing and maintaining one’s mental health. If you find that you’re struggling this winter and a bout of melancholy seems a little more difficult to shake than usual, it may be a good idea to reach out to your GP for a chat.

As January plods on and the mornings seem like they’ll never be bright again, getting up at the crack of the cold, dark dawn and somehow maintaining a chipper outlook can seem an uphill battle. But in a few weeks the sun will start to rise over our morning commute, the warmth will steal back into the air and the first shoots of spring will unfurl. If all that fails to cheer, there’s always Valentine’s Day on the horizon to look forward to! And for those celebrating solo (or not at all) this year there’s also some rather compelling evidence that consuming chocolate produces endorphins, the feel-good hormones, so making a solid dent in a self-bought box of chocolates is also guaranteed to lift your spirits. That’s just science!

Niamh O’Leary
Based in Cork, Niamh is a writer interested in psychology, pop culture and parenting. She’d like to think you’d find her in a cosy cafe reading Proust, but you’re more likely to find her at home, covered in various substances from an almost-one-year-old.

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