Festive Season Self-Care: Nurturing Mental Wellbeing in Winter
The festive season can often bring a combination of joy and stress for many. For some, the stress can outweigh the joy and it’s common to go through December feeling stressed and anxious, and burnt out by the time the the new year arrives.
Many people overextend themselves during the holidays, trying to meet social and family obligations. Practising self-care helps prevent burnout, ensuring you have the energy to enjoy the season.
In this blog, we offer some tips for managing stress and feeling your best during winter and the festive season. First, let’s look at some of the key factors that impact mental and physical wellbeing during the winter months and festive season.
Dysregulated Circadian Rhythms
Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles, like an internal body clock, governing functions and processes within the body at different times of the day and night.
When this ‘clock’ is out of rhythm/dysregulated your body no longer works in sync, like instruments in an orchestra all playing out of time. This can lead to problems such as difficulties falling asleep and or staying asleep at night, feeling unrefreshed and groggy upon waking, daytime fatigue, reduced cognitive performance and alertness, low mood or depression.
Things that disrupt your circadian rhythms include:
- When lower natural light levels are available, such as in winter months
- Not enough time outside in natural daylight each day
- Artificial lighting in the evenings (blue-light, which suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin)
- Screen use in the evenings up to bedtime (more blue-light)
- Caffeine too late in the day
- Vigorous exercise at night/during the evening
Low vitamin D levels can have a significant impact on mood and overall mental well-being. Vitamin D receptors are found in various parts of the brain, including those responsible for mood regulation. Vitamin D is thought to play a role in the synthesis and regulation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which are strongly associated with mood. Low vitamin D levels may lead to imbalances in these neurotransmitters, contributing to low mood or depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs seasonally in some people, typically during the winter months where daylight hours are reduced and there is less sunlight. SAD has been linked to insufficient vitamin D levels. The "winter blues" or SAD can lead to symptoms such as low energy, irritability, and depression.
Most of the vitamin D your body needs is produced in your skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Summer months help to increase vitamin D levels for a good portion of the year, however levels tend to decline during the darker, winter months where full spectrum sunshine is lacking.
Many of us tend towards less movement and exercise in the winter months and particularly in the run up to Christmas. Lack of physical activity has been linked to depression and anxiety. Exercise promotes the release of endorphins, which are natural mood enhancing brain chemicals. Physical activity is a natural stress reliever as it helps reduce levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in your body. When you're inactive, your stress levels can rise, leading to increased feelings of tension and anxiety. Therefore, it’s crucial to stay active through the winter and festive season.
Here are some of our favourite tools for managing stress and taking care of your mental and physical wellbeing this winter and festive season.
Practice 4:6 deep breathing for 3 minutes each morning and night.
The 4:6 breathing technique has been shown to elicit a relaxation response in the body, helping to calm the nervous system and bring down stress hormones. This breathing technique can help you to stay grounded and emotionally balanced. It involves a specific pattern of inhaling and exhaling.
Here's how to do it:
- Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lay down. You can sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor or lying on your back with your hands resting on your abdomen.
- Close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4 seconds. During the inhale, try to fill your lungs with air by expanding your diaphragm and feeling your abdomen rise. This should be a slow and controlled breath.
- Exhale slowly, gently, and completely through your nose or your mouth for a count of 6 seconds. As you exhale, focus on releasing tension and stress.
- Repeat this 4:6 pattern for a minimum of 3 minutes and you can continue for longer if you’d like to.
The key to this technique is the deliberate slowing down of your breathing and the extended exhalation, which activates the “rest and digest'' branch of your nervous system, switching you out of “fight or flight” stress response. This in turn helps to reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm in body and mind. Practising 4:6 breathing regularly, especially during stressful or anxious moments, can be a useful tool for managing your stress and maintaining overall wellbeing.
Staying active needn't be complicated or fancy. Simply getting out for one long walk or a few shorter ones everyday has been shown to be beneficial. Do this preferably in nature and in daylight hours for added benefits. Where possible, walk or bike to work or use public transport with short walks to and from the bus or train station. If you have access to a multi-story building, use the stairs for a cardiovascular workout, take the stairs instead of lifts, walk up and down escalators instead of standing. Climbing stairs can be a challenging and effective exercise.
Get Into Daylight Each Morning
It’s usually dark upon waking in the winter months but it’s important to expose your eyes to full spectrum daylight within about 20 minutes of waking. In the darker months purchase and use a 10,000 LUX light box for around 30 minutes or more each morning. Then get out into daylight as soon as you can.
Get Outside Often
Take walks in nature, go for walks around the block a few times a day in your breaks, put on a heavy coat and sit or stand in your garden or balcony multiple times a day.
More Darkness and Less Screen Time at Night
Dim the lights all around your home from about 7pm each evening and start to minimise your ‘blue light’ exposure, which includes overhead lighting, other bright lights, TV, laptop, phone, or tablet use.
Avoid Intense Workouts in the Evenings
Avoid doing intense workouts or other vigorous styles of exercise in the evening.
The evenings (apart from when socialising) are a time to wind down and send signals to the brain that it’s time to start making your sleep hormone (melatonin) and stop making your wakeful hormone (cortisol).
Test Vitamin D Levels and Supplement
Now is a good time to have your vitamin D levels tested, and if your levels are not within the optimal range you can start taking a quality vitamin D3 supplement to get you through the winter. You can ask your GP or use a home blood testing service such as Medichecks who offer vitamin D testing kits for around £39.
Set Good Boundaries
Say "no" when necessary (when you mean “no”!) and always prioritise your well-being over excessive and additional obligations.
Promote Gratitude and Joy
Focusing on things you are grateful for in your life, your day, or your week, has been shown to reduce the stress response. Gratitude can help to counterbalance negative emotions. When you actively acknowledge the things you're grateful for, it can help reduce feelings of envy, resentment, or bitterness. Regularly practising gratitude can boost your overall mood and help reduce depression and anxiety. It helps you to create a more positive and optimistic outlook on life.
Each day, simply write down (or saying aloud) 3-5 things you are grateful for. This can include all sorts of things such as the bird song you hear by your window, the warm bath you had that day, the person who smiled at you on the bus, your home, partner, best friend, funny exchange at the shop…anything!
In summary, self-care during the winter and the festive season is crucial for managing the unique stressors and challenges that can arise during this time. It helps maintain your physical and mental well-being, keeps you grounded, and allows you to enjoy the festive season more fully, without burning out. It's important to prioritise self-care to ensure that you enter the new year feeling refreshed and recharged.