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Working Through Winter

Winter can be challenging for many for a variety of reasons and connecting with others is a fantastic way of beating the winter blues. This is why our Campfire Chat on Working Through Winter was so important and meaningful as it gave us the opportunity to create our very own little community for the evening. As with our other Campfire Chats, it was brilliant to see so many people come together to engage in such an important topic.

Dr Claire Gillvray began the evening with an interesting statistic: 1/3 of us suffer from the winter blues and mood drops at this time of year. There are a number or psychological and physiological reasons behind this, but the good news is that there are many practical tips we can use to make the winter period that little bit easier.

Key discussion points in the Campfire Chat included:

Loneliness and the Importance of Community

Loneliness is tough any time of year but in the winter, this can be exacerbated. Reaching out can be tough but there’s always a community to be found whether that be in person or online. The chances are there will always be someone else who is feeling the same way as you so finding and connecting with those people can make you feel less alone.

Taking that first step is the hardest. If you go to a community group on your own and everyone knows each other it’s easy to start judging people and to assume they will be judging you, but 90% of life is turning up. Initially go for yourself and for the activity to take the pressure off connecting with new people, but overtime connections will form organically as you get to know people. It’s not just that first step which is hard but having the courage to keep taking those steps to form those new relationships.

Online communities can be a really great place to meet new people and form connections, especially if you work irregular hours or live in an isolated location where physical community can be hard to come by. There are plenty of groups out there so it’s worth keeping an eye out. These include veterinary specific online communities like Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify (VSGD), and non-veterinary ones such as Side by Side set up by the mental health charity, Mind.

There are many useful resources on loneliness and social isolation on The Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just having the winter blues. It is a formal diagnosis which includes loss of functionality. Symptoms include social withdrawal, losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed, and a drop in energy levels. Research shows SAD may be genetic – you’re much more likely to suffer from it if it is prevalent in your family. We need to be careful to separate SAD from the winter blues. If you suspect you are suffering from SAD, you should contact your GP.

Listen to panellist Dr Claire Gillvray speak more about SAD in a WellVet webinar from last year which can be accessed here.

SAD Lamps can be useful in helping with SAD. SAD is caused partly by a lack of vitamin D, which we normally get from sunlight. Nothing can replace sunlight (which is roughly 20x stronger than SAD lamps) but SAD lamps are better than nothing as they can still be used to trigger the cortisol melatonin cycle which will help you to sleep better. It’s all about regulating your circadian rhythm and SAD lamps can help upsurge your internal body clock in the mornings. (Interesting study here).

Owning your mindset

When you’re in a difficult situation it can feel as if the whole world is against you, and it becomes easy to adopt a victim mentality. Naturally, this can lead to negative thought spirals.

The first stage in addressing this is to recognise when that victim voice appears in your head. Finding the positives in bad situations can sometimes be near on impossible, especially when working in extremely challenging circumstances, as our primordial brains are naturally programmed with negative bias.

Changing this negative bias is difficult but not impossible. Scientific research has proven that you can train your brain to balance out the negative bias in your brain to make you feel more positive about difficult situations. Regularly reciting positive self-affirmations, for example, have been proven to change the way our brains look and function. In the past, positive self-affirmations may have appeared wishy-washy, but they do work. (Self-Affirmation Improves Problem-Solving under Stress (plos.org), Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation (nih.gov)).

Back in the summer our panellist Mark gave a webinar on Managing Stress with the Right Brain which includes additional useful tips on reframing negative thoughts and avoiding victim mentality.

Mark also mentioned a book by Sean Acorn called The Happiness Advantage which also covers this. A summary of the book can be found here.

Find what works for you (self-appraisals and motivation)

Find something you enjoy and that will motivate you to get out of your own negative head space. If you find something you like, you’re much more likely to stick at it.

Having an activity to focus on outside of work and home life which is just for you can be hugely beneficial and can help prevent burnout.

Taking time to check in with yourself is also hugely important and different things work well for people at different times. One day that might be reading a chapter of a good book, another day it might mean taking a bracing winter walk or taking a bath. Some people respond well to healthy competition with friends and colleagues to motivate themselves whilst others might find that idea horrifying. Listen to your body and find what motivates you and what allows you to reset.

The Christmas period can be extremely challenging so remember that selfcare comes from self-empathy. Veterinary professionals are fantastic at being empathetic towards others with many giving up their family Christmases to look after their patients but can often find it hard to be empathetic towards themselves. Winter is highly challenging with reduced daylight hours, isolation and unwelcoming weather, but there is some good to be taken from every situation and pride in every achievement (even if it doesn’t always feel like it!) When we speculate about how others are thinking or feeling we are rarely right, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or reach out if you need support – you may end up helping that person as much as they will be helping you.

If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, Vetlife is there for you 24/7 and can be reached on: 0303 040 2551. The Samaritans also provide 24/7 support and can be reached on 116 123.

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