Nfld. & Labrador

Feeling the winter blues? These wellness tips could help

Dr. Janine Hubbard says healthy habits and sunlight are key in battling the winter blues, which she says affects up to 30 per cent of the population every year.

Planning even a small activity can have big effects on mental health, psychologist says

Psychologist Dr. Janine Hubbard, president of the Association of Psychology Newfoundland and Labrador, says sunlight and healthy habits should be prioritized to beat the winter blues. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

For those who struggle with the winter blues, one St. John's psychologist always recommends healthy life habits and daily doses of vitamin D.

But this year, Janine Hubbard, pediatric psychologist and president of the Association of Psychologists Newfoundland and Labrador, is stressing the importance of one more ingredient: optimism.

Hubbard said optimism was high this time last year, as hope was building that COVID-19 vaccines would end the pandemic. 

"Of course, this year looks very different," Hubbard said. "People aren't seeing that next glimmer of optimism, that thing that they can perhaps hold on to."

This year more than ever, having something to look forward to is key to feeling good during the dark, cold months of the year, she said. 

For many, the promise of a spring escape is what gets them through. But with the pandemic once again upending travel plans, Hubbard said, planning any kind of new adventure — even a weekend of movies and board games with family — can be enough to satisfy the urge to escape.

"If you can't go on vacation, figure out some other things you can do that involve some optimistic planning," she said.

Healthy habits, healthy mind

Hubbard said up to 30 per cent of people experience a mood shift when the winter months set in, often marked by lower energy levels, decreased focus and cravings for carbohydrates.

This pattern is most notable among women aged 20 to 50 and those who reside in northern climates.

A much smaller group of people experience what scientists call major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern (formerly seasonal affective disorder).

Hubbard says getting fresh air and sunlight, by taking a walk outside, for example, are good ways to combat the lack of vitamin D that can lead to low energy and decreased focus. (Submitted by Francis Hull)

Hubbard said the milder cases of the winter blues can be chalked up to lack of vitamin D — our vital source of serotonin and melatonin, which regulate mood and sleep patterns, respectively.

"There's something about that lack of sunlight exposure that decreases both of those neurotransmitters," she said.

"The best way to combat it is if you can get exposure to sunlight in as many ways as you can." 

Hubbard said physician-prescribed vitamin D supplements can help as an alternative to the real thing. Sunlight therapy lamps can also be a useful tool, she said. 

But most of all, people battling seasonal blues should prioritize healthy habits.

"So being mindful of things like sleep, eating habits, exercise — especially fresh [air], outdoor exercise," she said.

It's also important to watch your alcohol and food intake.

"I'm not saying don't have them, but be a little more self-aware that that may become more of the default go-to at the moment," Hubbard said.

Wellness advocate Alison Butler says self-compassion is key to battling the winter blues. (Submitted by Alison Butler)

Kindness is key

Wellness advocate and mental health first aid facilitator Alison Butler says many people who struggle with the seasonal blues tend to put unrealistic demands on themselves, which is why self-compassion is crucial.

"It's so important to remind ourselves that we are doing the best that we can right now in this moment," she said.

"A lot of us expect ourselves to be able to keep operating at full capacity, whatever that looks like for each of us. But we're not able to operate in our full normal." 

Butler said finding a support person — like a friend, family member or professional counsellor — is also key. 

"I think sometimes when we're going through difficult times, a lot of us go inwards, because it's a very inner struggle," she said.

"But I think it is important to recognize that it's good to talk about things. It's good to talk about our feelings."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Kyle Mooney is a journalist and musician living in St. John's.