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Woman enjoying the winter sun on a beach

How to beat the winter blues

With COVID-19 restrictions ramping up, the winter and Christmas ahead may be difficult for many – but especially for those who suffer from the 'winter blues' and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But simple changes can help, says psychotherapist Sally Brown.

As we head into autumn and winter and the clocks go back, we naturally spend more time indoors, so it's more important than ever to make your home a sanctuary. Here are some easy changes that can help support your mood and resilience.

Time for some TLC

73 per cent of those who are happy in their homes are happy in their lives, and our homes are three times as important as income when it comes to happiness, according to research from the Happiness Research Institute.1

So, investing time and energy in your home is also an investment in your happiness and, with more time spent indoors, now is the ideal time to tackle those small maintenance tasks. Start by making a master list of what needs doing, whether it's sorting out that drawer that always sticks, fixing a leaky tap or redecorating a room that looks tired.

If tasks are big, break them down into small steps. Then each week, choose one or more to focus on and tick off.

Declutter

Not surprisingly, it's hard to feel happy at home if you feel like you don't have enough space.1

Living with clutter at home also means you're constantly receiving subconscious 'things are out of control' messages, raising stress levels. Decluttering is best done little and often – try 30 minutes a day – and brings most benefit when you find purposeful ways to upcycle your unwanted possessions, such as donating to charity shops or recycling schemes.

Cosy up

Decluttered doesn't have to mean minimal. Prioritising hygge (cosiness and contentment) is how the Danes get through winter. Warm up rooms with throws, cushions and rugs and, if you have space, make a hyggekrog or hygge corner – a cosy nook where you can snuggle up, gaze out the window, or lose yourself in a book.

Think rituals

When you're spending most of the day in the same environment, you can drift along on autopilot. Rituals create 'stop and pause' opportunities to bring our attention to the here and now, so we're more likely to notice and savour small moments of pleasure.

Small rituals – whether it's lighting a candle when you relax with a glass of wine, getting out a tablecloth or the good china for a meal, or turning off the TV, radio and your phone while you sip a cup of something warming in the morning – also reinforce the message to yourself that you're worth taking care of.

Get clever with scents

We take in information through all our senses, including our sense of smell, and the olfactory system is directly linked to our limbic system, the part of the brain that controls our moods and emotions.

Aromatherapy is based on the principle that essential oils extracted from plants or trees are endowed with a whole host of therapeutic qualities. Lavender, ylang ylang, mandarin and rosemary are traditionally used to create calm, while bergamot, lemon and eucalyptus are more energising. Burn a few drops in an essential oil diffuser, look for essential oil-based room sprays or just add a couple of drops to a hot bath.

Let there be light

There's a reason Christmas decorations are all about the sparkle – adding light to our rooms gives us a psychological uplift on dark days. But fairy lights aren't just for Christmas trees: draping strings of lights around mirrors, picture frames, mantelpieces and houseplants can be an inexpensive and simple way to add mood-lifting light to every room throughout winter.

Frame old photographs

Reminiscing can boost self-esteem and feelings of optimism, improve relationships, and combat loneliness, according to research from the University of Southampton.2

A dose of nostalgia can also leave you feeling that your life has meaning, by reminding you of the significant events you have experienced and the people you have been close to.3

Keep up the gardening

When you've done your winter tidy, it's tempting to put away your gardening gloves until spring. But keep it up and you'll get a dose of friluftsliv – what the Danes call time in the fresh air.

Even in winter, time spent outdoors, especially in a green space, has a therapeutic effect on mood. Pottering round the garden weeding, deadheading or raking leaves, ideally in the morning, can top up your exposure to UV light, thought to play in role in staving off the winter blues.

It can be hard to get out the door on a cold, grey day, but tell yourself you'll only do 10 minutes. Chances are, once you're out there, you'll end up staying out longer. And if you can't get outdoors, spend time sitting next to a window.4

Rearrange the furniture

Routine can be comforting, but studies show that changing things up regularly can give us a mood boost. The theory is that even a simple change, such as rearranging furniture so that you sit in a different place, increases our behavioural flexibility. And as a knock-on effect, it makes positive changes in eating and exercise habits feel easier, according to researchers from the University of Hertfordshire.5

Be neighbourly

One in four people said they felt lonely during the last lockdown, according to the Mental Health Foundation.6

And talking to strangers is also good for us – even seemingly insignificant encounters such as small talk and smiles shared with delivery personnel, shopworkers, baristas or bus drivers contribute to our sense of wellbeing, according to University of Essex research.7

Sally is a trained psychotherapist and health and lifestyle writer, working for national newspapers and magazines.

Find out more about Sally Brown.

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