The Winter Blues

December 30, 2021

The beginning of the year is often hard. Short days, cold weather and the longest month of the year (surely?), coupled with adverts bombarding us with ways to supercharge our lives and get thinner/fitter/richer - all of these things add up to all of us feeling far less than our best.

Evidence backs this up. Around 3% of people in the UK are affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that comes and follows a seasonal pattern. SAD is thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter months, which can affect the body’s production of melatonin, serotonin and the body’s circadian rhythm - meaning that our bodies, and our body’s feel-good hormones vary significantly over the winter months.

A lonely winter

Winter can also be a lonely time. With short winter days limiting outdoor activities, people often find it harder to find the time to socialise. Research shows that 45% of adults in England - that’s 25 million people - feel lonely to some degree.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened these feelings of loneliness, with young adults and those living alone particularly affected. Without appropriate support and intervention, loneliness can pave the way for far more serious mental and physical health problems. Loneliness is shown to be linked to higher mortality rates and increased risk of diseases such as heart disease and dementia, as well as being a risk factor for depression.

Strains on health services

As the cost of living increases and healthcare waiting lists continue to get longer, the number of people seeking health support (currently 6 million in the UK) continues to rise. Mental health support is also stretched: 1.6 million people in the UK are on a waiting list for mental health care, with a further 8 million unable to access support, as they are not deemed sick enough to qualify for specialist treatment. For those in the hospital system, delays and cancellations are common across NHS services during the winter months.

Data shows that the winter of 2021/22 has been hit even harder than previous years, with record numbers of ambulance handover delays, bed occupancy above 93% (vs <90% last winter), a rise in staff absences and 1 in 10 hospital beds occupied by people fit to leave.

Protecting health

So how can we protect the health of people over the winter months, when feelings of sadness, loneliness and depression can set in? There’s no single answer, but taking small steps to health now can set people up for a kinder, healthier winter. Whether that’s grabbing 5 minutes of sunshine, arranging a phone call with a friend, eating an immune-boosting meal, or watching a feel-good film…small actions now can pave the way to even greater health benefits in the long-term.

And remember, when in doubt, always seek professional support. A doctor can make referrals to qualified specialists and, for those on waiting lists, digital health coaches like Holly Health can provide immediate support while awaiting further treatment.

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