Mental Health in Winter

Emma Cusworth By Emma Cusworth

#GetOutside Champion Emma Cusworth gives us some sounds advice to help keep you smiling this Winter.


Winter has arrived and for most people it brings about the excitement of Christmas, time with families and friends and thoughts of new aims for the New Year. However, when the festivities have passed it can seem like all we have left are short, dark days and colder weather.

Research shows that during the winter period, the Nation’s mental health as a collective takes a turn for the worse, be it due to money worries, loneliness, social media, overwhelming social engagements, increased alcohol intake, winter weather – the list goes on.

Before sitting down to write this blog, I set up an Instagram poll asking my followers what their top tips were for keeping good mental health over the winter period and I was blown away by the responses; so many people got involved, each with a different answer but all encapsulating similar themes.

So, here’s a few bits of advice that might help keep you smiling this winter.

Snowman

Maintaining a routine

Winter can mix things up a little, and it’s important to try and keep your routine so you’re not thrown off track. Spending can go out of the window, eating habits change, deadlines before holidays can cause pressure and social events can interrupt your normal life.

Making plans that allow you to have some semblance of your normal routine can be so simple yet effective. If it involves sitting down on one day every week and writing out a diary of your work/engagements/exercise/ and sticking to this, then do it. It will reduce stress and confusion and allows you to fit in everything you want and need to do.

To do lists have saved me on multiple occasions, and there’s always a great sense of satisfaction when everything is ticked off. However, don’t then worry if you can’t fit it all in – prioritise and cut yourself some slack. The New Year often motivates people to get organised, make resolutions and plans, so use this eagerness to set some goals. Treat yourself to a new diary or planner and get that list started!

Emma on a walk across a bridge

Make time for yourself

As I previously mentioned, winter can involve a lot of social gatherings which wouldn’t normally be part of our calendars. For some people this is very enjoyable, but for others it can cause anxiety. Then January comes along and can present as an anti-climax to all the celebrations – back to work and normality and the realisation that another year has flown by.

During this time, it’s important that you make time for yourself and the little things you enjoy. Something as simple as having time during your day to read a book, enjoy a relaxing bath, watch tv, play a game, use social media, go for a walk – anything that gives you joy. Taking the time for these activities and giving yourself some time away from interacting with other people allows your mind to have a little reset and focus on number one – yourself.

Whilst being there for others is important, you need to realise that you should be there for yourself as well. Give yourself a break, mull over your thoughts or simply think about nothing. We all lead such busy lives now and daily moments to recalibrate your mind will allow clarity and relaxation.

Group walking

Talk to others

Whilst I maintain that time alone is vital, talking to others can be just as important. The stresses that winter can bring about can leave people feeling down and alone with their problems. If you’re struggling, don’t be embarrassed to open up to someone. It could be someone you’re close to or a complete stranger – everyone’s preference is different and you’ll find one easier than the other.

There’s no fault in going through a tough time, but isolating yourself may lead to these problems manifesting and taking over your thoughts, causing bigger problems. Having a chat with someone allows the burden to be unloaded, and they may have a new perspective to share with you.

Similarly, if you notice someone has become withdrawn or appears down, there’s no harm in asking how they’re doing. Sometimes, one simple question is the sign someone needs to know it’s ok to open up.

Look after each other – empathy goes a long way.

Always remember that if anything gets too much, there are helplines and organisations you can speak to as well.

Planning new adventures

As I said previously, January and the winter period can be quite underwhelming for some people. Lack of plans can demotivate some, and this may lead to poor mental health.

Along with forming a routine, the New Year is the perfect time to plan some adventures. Having something to look forward to in my experience means that rather than focusing on days and weeks that drag on, I focus on counting down to when I’m going away or doing something.

Maybe you’ve got a challenge you want to complete this year? Start planning for it – fix dates, an itinerary, contacting other people to get them on board if you want company, your travel plans etc.

The concrete plans will make it all seem more possible and with any luck, there’s your motivation to keep on trucking until the date arrives.

Nutrition

We all know what it’s like – no mater how healthy you were keeping yourself throughout the year, Christmas comes along and so does the endless supply of beige foods, chocolate and alcohol. I would openly encourage everyone to let loose and enjoy themselves over the festive period and through the whole year, but as the saying goes, everything in moderation.

Poor nutrition and diet can lead to obesity and associated medical conditions. Linked with these physical problems come mental health problems, an example being that 55% people classed as obese in the UK are also diagnosed with depression.

You have to think of your body as an engine – without the fuel, it isn’t going to run.

The key to fuelling yourself is eating regularly (and eating enough!), having a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated.

Basket of health food
  • Eating regularly – eating at regular intervals during the day will help to maintain your blood sugar levels (important even if you aren’t Diabetic) and this also accounts for eating enough – not limiting your calories or restricting yourself. Uneven blood sugar levels can lead to fatigue, irritability and low mood, all of which over a prolonged period of time will lead to poor mental health.

  • Well balanced diet – it’s important to include all the food groups in a balanced diet, as they all serve a purpose for our health. Maintaining a well balanced diet ensures your body is getting all the different nutrients required to keep you going, preventing tiredness, illness and obesity, thus as a rule improving your mental health.

  • Staying hydrated – our bodies are made up of 60% water, and our brain and heart are made up of roughly 75% water. A 1.5 % loss of a body’s normal water volume can be classed as mild dehydration, and the first thing the body does to compensate for this loss is slow circulation.

This consequently reduces blood flow and the amount of oxygen going to the brain, so our cognitive function is immediately lowered in the forms of fatigue, lack of concentration and headaches, alongside the physical complications. This worsens the more dehydrated we become. Staying hydrated prevents these symptoms, keeping your mind on track and contributes to better physical and mental health.

Despite saying all this, it’s important to remember that if something works for you, stick to it. Everyone is different and so everyone’s diet will be different. There are pros and cons to all types of diet and nutrition, and whilst I would advise research into different methods, if it makes you feel good then it’s obviously right for you.

We are constantly bombarded with ways to improve our health with fad diets, media shaming and the “perfect body” message suggesting that health is for an aesthetic purpose and the prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating is higher than ever before. It’s important to remember that nutrition is for your health and not your looks.

Keeping active

Keeping to the theme of nutrition and health, staying active plays a key role in good mental health and science supports this. Essentially…

Exercise = endorphins. Endorphins = happy.

Endorphins are a group of hormones released by the body in response to prolonged or intense physical exercise. The name combines endogenous and morphine and refers to the morphine-like action endorphins have on the body. Their main function is to inhibit the communication of pain signals in the body, but they also create a euphoric feeling in the body, explaining the term “runner’s high.” They are a natural analgesic, create natural happiness & pleasure and are shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

Alongside the benefits of physical exercise are the benefits of being outside, with fresh air and the outdoors allowing moments of mindfulness, reflection and a sense of peace. In the modern society, these things can be overlooked but they are integral to maintaining good mental health. Remember that there are so many ways of being active outdoors too – running, cycling, walking, climbing, swimming, yoga, bootcamps, sports and team games – this list goes on.

Emma active on the beach

My top tip for keeping active over the winter period is to make exercise a daily routine. It doesn’t have to be a big adventure, but even a 20 minute walk every day will benefit. This could be done during a lunch break, after work or with family or friends on a day off. If it’s raising your heart rate, it’s benefitting you.

There are so many places to explore all over the UK – even if you live in a city, you can look at the green space layer on OS Maps and find somewhere local to go. The physical benefits alone of keeping active are worth it, but good mental health alongside means it’s a winner.


As mentioned before, I asked my Instagram followers how they keep good mental health during the winter period, and all their answers ran along the same themes of what I’ve written about (Thank you to everyone who answered – it’s too many to list!) However, mental health is extremely personal and what works for one person might not work for another. I am in no way qualified to advise anyone on how to improve their mental health and these are just the personal practices I use to keep my mental health in check – if it gives someone some inspiration, that’s great.

At certain times of the year it’s harder than others, but reverting back to basics and making myself a priority always seems to help.

So here’s to an active and happy New Year for everyone – keep smiling!

Emma Cusworth By Emma Cusworth

About:

Emma is an outdoors adventurer, sunshine lover and big smiler – happier outside!

Find out more about Emma Cusworth.

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