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Lost your mojo? It’s got to be here somewhere...

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DR LORETTA POERIO
Mental Health Adviser
Department of Veterans’ Affairs

Two women, one in uniform, exercising with light weights.

Exercise boosts your body’s ‘feel good’ hormones, increases energy and improves sleep.

While it may be tempting to snuggle down under the doona with a packet of Tim Tams and a mug of hot chocolate and hibernate for the winter, this activity may need to come with a warning label.

In small doses, a doona day may restore the spirits, but if it leads to more and more isolation from others and, as a consequence, your connection to the outside world becoming smaller, then it may be time to rethink your coping strategy.

Winter, with its short days and long, cold nights, along with our limited exposure to sunshine, can be a time when our mood heads south. We can feel sad or flat and be lacking in energy and motivation. This is part and parcel of the ups and downs of life.

In fact, every year around autumn, some people, especially those living in the northern hemisphere, find themselves dealing with seasonal depression (also known as seasonal affective disorder – SAD). The seasonal pattern of symptoms can begin in autumn/winter and resolve in spring/summer.

We know, from life experience, that mental illness is not a simple yes or no proposition. Symptoms can range from mild through to very severe. Common symptoms are a lack of energy, loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, change in sleep pattern, loss or gain in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, and weight gain or loss. If feelings of sadness, low energy and emptiness are prolonged, lasting weeks, months and even years, and they interfere with daily life and relationships, then visiting a health professional may be in order to assess whether you have depression.

The type of treatment offered will depend on your individual needs and the severity of depression. Psychological therapy and exercise work well for many people, such as those experiencing mild to moderate symptoms. For others, an antidepressant medicine may be used in conjunction with psychological therapy. Seeking help early is a key factor to optimise treatment success. Beyondblue provides a useful resource guide, ‘What works for depression’, which can be downloaded from its website. Visit beyondblue.org.au and type ‘What works for depression’ into the search field.

We know people recover well with the right care and support. For some, care and support is required over a longer time period, or at particular times in their lives. Remember, one in five Australians will experience some form of depression during their lives, so it is not a rare event.

Of course, there are many things we can do to help ourselves. Good self-care includes:

  • Maintaining/developing a good sleep routine. Sleep is essential to our mental health and wellbeing. We can cope much better with life’s adventures, and engage in effective problem-solving when we have had sufficient sleep.
  • Making exercise part of your daily routine. It only takes 20–30 minutes a day to increase production of your body’s ‘feel good’ hormones. Exercise also increases energy and improves sleep.
  • Expressing gratitude. Write down two or three things that you are grateful for every day. Practised daily, research has shown that this can increase your energy and optimism.
  • Doing something you enjoy every day. This activity can reduce stress and increase feelings of calmness, and is a lovely way to nurture yourself.
  • Exposing yourself to the sun (within reason!). Sunlight – about 20 minutes every day, without sunglasses or sunscreen – is vital to enabling your body to produce vitamin D, which is crucial to your mental and physical health. Associate Professor Ingrid van der Mei, a leading epidemiologist at the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research, cautions that vitamin D deficiency is common in winter and spring throughout Australia (including sunny Queensland). Exposure to UV light through the eyes raises the level of serotonin in your system. This boosts your mood and regulates appetite and also triggers melatonin production. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant, which benefits sleep, mood, adrenal health and immunity.
  • Maintaining/developing connections with family, friends and community groups. Social support is a significant factor in our wellbeing.
  • Relaxing. Listening to music, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, singing and gardening all help to reduce the production of stress hormones and provide a feeling of calmness.

Good self-care is a skill for life. It provides the suspension system that helps us navigate the potholes of life. In many areas of medicine, we accept that prevention is essential to our health. Without immunisation programs, for instance, the world would be a very different place.

Unfortunately, we have not embraced prevention as a means of protecting our mental health to the same extent. It should be our first line of defence, with significant benefits to ourselves and those around us.

If you think you might be feeling depressed, see your GP or call the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (vvcs.gov.au), available 24 hours a day on 1800 011 046.

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