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Reducing social media use and staying active can help fight off winter blues

Georgie Burgess, Saturday May 18, 2019 - 13:42 EST
ABC licensed image
The colder months can sometimes get you down. - ABC licensed

As the days get colder and shorter, many of us become susceptible to the winter blues.

In Tasmania, six to 10 per cent of the population experience some form of winter depression — about 3 per cent will suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a condition experienced only at certain times of the year, particularly in autumn and winter.

While there's limited research, Tasmania's rates are 10 times higher than the national estimate of one in 300.

From keeping active to modifying social media use, there are ways to beat the winter blues and knowing when to seek help.



Social media in the winter months

Winter often means spending more time inside in the warmth of the lounge room, possibly leading to increased social media use.

Brad Ridout from the Cyberpsychology Research Group at the University of Sydney said increased time online could have negative effects on mental health.



"A number of studies have shown that the more people scroll through happy status updates, holiday snaps and such, the worse they feel," he said.

"This is because while most people consciously know that people tend to post a carefully chosen highlights reel of their life on social media, it still hits us on an emotional level and leaves us feeling like everyone else is living more exciting lives than us.

"Using social media often leads to social comparison, which when you are already feeling blue will usually just make you feel worse."



'Fill your feed with positivity'

Jennifer Stokes, a lecturer in digital literacy and future ideas at the University of South Australia, said people could be strategic during dreary months to get a more positive experience online.

"Block celebrities to minimise social comparison, or hide posts from that friend that always seems to be on a glamorous holiday — chances are, their reality is very different to the social media persona anyway," she said.

"Minimise overuse, cut down time online to engage with the real world."

Instead, users should fill their feeds with positivity, Ms Stokes said.

"How can your day not be brightened by a kitten in a sombrero, or a litter of puppies?

"Happiness is created through experiences as well, which you can then choose to share over social media if you wish.

"Can you treat yourself and a loved one to a special outing? Hot chips or coffee by a picturesque coastline can make for an Instagramable moment."



Both Ms Stokes and Dr Ridout said switching off could improve your mood.

"When the days are short and the weather is cold, it's very easy to spend too much time on the infinite scroll of social media, searching for something to improve your mood," Dr Ridout said.

"But the best thing you can do is put your phone down and spend more time doing the things you love with the people you love.

"Simply cuddling up under a blanket and binge-watching TV, doing so with friends or family can improve mood and make you feel less lonely."



When the blues are a seasonal pattern

Diagnosed seasonal affective disorder is recognised by health professionals as a specifier.

The symptoms are different to winter depression and include hyper-stimulation, a lack of sleep and weight loss.

"Anxiety is more heightened rather than the depression aspect," psychologist Tina Hale said.



Experiencing the winter blues did not necessarily mean someone was suffering seasonal affective disorder, she said.

"The winter blues is the subclinical picture, where people show some of the symptoms but they may not tick all the boxes for a full diagnoses [of SAD]."

Dr Hale said people might feel lethargic, have a changed appetite and notice different sleep patterns.

"If someone is experiencing difficulties at work or school and their withdrawing is distinctive, they should certainly see their GP for help and a referral."

If the symptoms were there but to a lesser degree, Dr Hale said it was always good to have a healthy routine.

"Get outside, go for a walk, stay active."



When it's more than just the blues

General practitioner Bastian Seidel said it could be difficult to prevent SAD.

Dr Seidel is based at the Huon Valley Health Centre in the state's south where, like many parts of Tasmania, the average winter temperature is 12 degrees Celsius.

"Every year we are seeing patients who are genuinely affected," he said.

"They show signs of depression or low mood, they are lethargic and don't have any motivation.

"The darker the days are and the colder the days are, the more severe those symptoms become and people are really struggling."

He said women and younger people were more affected by SAD, and people new to a cold climate could also be at risk.

"A lot of mainlanders who come from sunnier states like Queensland, they move to the Huon Valley to retire and in the first few years they often struggle.

"We're not sure why SAD really develops; it might be that our neurotransmitters are out of balance because of the lack of sunlight."



Dr Seidel said it could also be linked serotonin levels and hormones like melatonin.

It can be treated by exposure to sunlight, light therapy, medication and counselling.

He said people should make the most of sunny days, even if it's short walk outside.

"We get concerned about office workers who sit inside and maybe don't have a window and don't get any exposure to sunlight.

"We know that artificial light can sometimes help as well; it's often the preferred treatment option."


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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