07 Dec, 2023

Laura Falconer
Laura Falconer

The winter season can be a busy time for many, but also presents unique challenges, from colder temperatures, the subsequent impact this has on our immune systems, the potential effects of reduced sunlight hours on our mood, financial pressures with seasonal celebrations and changes to the frequency in socialising.

This article discusses the influence of the seasons on behaviour, health and wellbeing, some of the health challenges winter brings, and what proactive measures we might put in place. There is also a list of tips, and behaviour change techniques to help ensure a healthy, balanced Winter, subsequently supporting wellbeing through this time.

The influence of the seasons on our behaviour

Did you know that the seasons can influence our behaviours? We may be more aggressive in the heat, more optimistic in the sunshine, more creative in pleasant weather, and perceive others more positively in the summer. In the colder weather, we may be less distracted, have better memory on cloudy days, be more charitable, and lower in mood. We may also find our food, colour and music preferences change across the year, and cognitive performance can decrease in Autumn and winter. For more information on this click here.

Considering these influences, it is understandable that we may have preferences for certain times of the year over others, and why we may feel differently during Summer compared to winter.

The influence of seasons on health and wellbeing

We may also see changes to our physical, social and mental health.

Physical health changes could include:

  • Less Vitamin D from the sun

  • Increased appetite

  • A worsening of some health problems, mobility and safety

  • Reduction in activity

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Changes to sleep cycle

Social health changes could include:

  • Increased isolation or social burnout from seasonal gatherings

  • Peer pressure

  • Relationships strengthening or weakening

Mental health changes could include:

  • Chemical imbalances

  • Disrupted circadian rhythm (sleep cycle)

  • Personal resilience may decrease

  • Motivation may reduce

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

The change in the seasons can be particularly apparent if you are someone who struggles with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is often misunderstood to be a general lowering of mood, sometimes known as the ‘winter blues’. However, it is a depressive disorder occurring during the same season each year, often cyclical in nature, that does not always coincide with winter. It is more prevalent in places like Scotland, and women are at an increased risk. Seasonal Affective Disorder is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, with 3 people in every 100 experiencing significant winter depression.

But how do we know it is SAD?

This is often one of the challenges associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder as the term can be frequently used when describing symptoms that may be linked with something else. SAD is characterised by the following:

  • Recurrent hopelessness

  • Seasonal patterns of suicidal thoughts

  • 2+ years pattern of weight gain

  • Intensifying symptoms at certain times of the year.

There are other conditions, including mood disorders, menstrual health conditions, substance misuse, vitamin deficiencies, hypothyroidism and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, that all have overlapping symptoms with SAD. This includes changes to sleep, poor concentration levels, low mood, anxiety and fatigue. So it is understandable it can sometimes get confusing!

Why does it happen?

Our bodies go through a 24-hour cycle of physical, mental and behavioural changes each day, known as a Circadian Rhythm. The circadian rhythm helps regulate things like hormone release, eating habits, digestion and body temperature, and reduced sunlight hours can disrupt this ‘internal clock’. For this reason, those who work night shifts may struggle with symptoms similar to SAD. It is worth noting however that 25-50% of neurodivergent individuals have different circadian rhythms and may therefore be more productive in the later hours.

Two key hormones play a major role in circadian rhythms; melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced in response to darkness and supports sleep. It is often higher in those with SAD and can make people feel sleepier and more lethargic. Serotonin on the other hand is often lower in those with SAD. It is associated with mood management, sometimes referred to as the body’s ‘happy hormone’, and controls the sleep-wake cycle.


A big challenge facing people during winter are the financial pressures that come along with colder darker months. The pressure to afford necessities has increased following the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living rise. These pressures could come in the form of heating, food provision, or debt related challenges. For example, many households delay, or are unable to heat their homes, which can also cause pipes to burst if water freezes. Delaying servicing and repair of boilers, or other appliances due to the upfront cost, may lead to subsequent larger costs. Households may find less healthy food options cheaper to afford or skip meals altogether to provide food for others. Up to 1/3 of children attending school do so without breakfast. The extra financial and mental stress can result in an increased risk of eating disorders/relapse. The pressure of upcoming and ongoing bills may also leave individuals putting off reading or responding to correspondence, a reliance on unsecure lenders, and subsequently seeing increases to debt.

So, what can be done to help?

There are a few options available for each of these areas, outlined below.


  • Warm Home Discount - £150 paid directly to the energy company (means-tested benefits)

  • Cold Weather Payment - £25 for each consecutive 7-day period temperature falls below zero (means-tested benefits/mortgage support)

  • Winter Fuel Payments - £250-£600 for those born before 25th September 1957

  • Energy-saving home improvement grants/local energy grants

  • Warm Places Scheme (warm hubs)

Food Provision:

  • Free school meals - Those on means-tested benefits

  • Food vouchers for children - £15 per week during school holidays for those entitled to free school meals. Supermarket vouchers are also available for those of pensionable age on low income

  • Community Support - Food Banks/community larders, ‘Too Good To Go’,‘Olio’ apps, ‘Soup kitchens’/meal centres, Local welfare provision

  • ‘Wonky’ fruit & veg /goodie boxes
    Finance and debt:

  • Household Support Fund - Up to £300 for adults, up to £600 for adults with children. This is aimed at ‘’ anyone vulnerable or cannot pay for essentials”

  • Discretionary housing payment - Those receiving housing benefit/element

  • Council Tax Reduction or Hardship payment - Tax support claimants and vulnerable households e.g. mental health condition

  • Turn2us

  • Step Change

Tips to manage the season changes

With so many changes happening physically, mentally and emotionally across winter, there are a number of tips that can be adopted to support with managing wellbeing during this time. 

Body clock

Maintaining routines 

  • Try to set a regular wake and sleep time (everyone will vary) 

  • Plan a walk or movement break each morning to boost mood and reduce stress 

Practice sleep hygiene habits 

  • If you wake in the night, avoid using your phone and choose low light activities e.g. writing, reading, cleaning 

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeinated or sugary drinks before bed 

Wake cycle 

  • Keep a warm dressing gown/slippers or a shawl next to your bed 

  • Move your alarm so it is not in reach 


Eating well 


  • Increase Vitamin D* during the darker months (*contraindications in those with kidney conditions) 

  • Vitamin K2*, one of the three types of Vitamin K should be paired with Vitamin D to support absorption (*contraindications in those taking Warfarin) 

  • If you struggle with tablets, consider an oral spray e,g. Better You 


Follow the 5 ways to wellbeing

  • There are 5 aspects (Connect, Get Active, Take Notice, Give, Learn), each with steps that can be taken to improve overall wellbeing 

Try to set manageable goals 

  • Create a list of small tasks each day to tick off as you go 

  • Avoid setting yourself up to fail by making tasks too big or unachievable  

Focus on the positives 

  • Reflecting on even small achievements can boost your mood 

  • Practice mindfulness to give yourself time to stop and refuel 


Reach out to others 

  • This helps reduce isolation 

  • It releases dopamine, the brain’s pleasure centre 

  • It can be supportive in staying active 

Embrace seasonal activities 

  • Invite friends over for a movie night, find a local Autumnal walk to see the colours of the leaves or get creative with a seasonal crafting activity together 

  • Bring a cup of coffee and go for a walk with a friend – the natural light will bring a number of benefits 



  • Stay moving, even if you do not want to go out and ‘exercise’. This could include gentle yoga, or stretches – check out Youtube!


  • Stay connected with how you are feeling and write it all down. Remember there is support out there 


  • Spend time revisiting an old hobby, or expanding on a current one 


  • Use the darker months for reflection and rest 

Good Habits 

Habit pairing 

  • Pair a habit that’s difficult to maintain with something you routinely do/enjoy 

Plan ahead 

  • This could involve deciding in advance what meals you want to have each week, or some form of movement you’d like to do each day 

Tech free hour 

  • Have one hour a day where you spend time away from a phone, computer, tablet device or television 

  • Use this time to do something hands-on instead, to promote a mindful presence 

Behaviour change techniques to manage the season changes

In addition to the tips above, there are a few behaviour change techniques that may be beneficial to consider, not just during winter, but into the New Year as well. Relapse Prevention This technique can be useful for a number of different behaviours, including smoking, alcohol and weight management. It can be helpful to remember that a relapse does not mean the attempt to change a habit has failed, it’s a very normal part of change! It can be used as an opportunity to learn about yourself, what works and what doesn’t, when trying to maintain a lifestyle change.

The below tip can help with challenging thoughts so that we don’t let small ‘slip-ups’ lead to going back on progress made.


  • Identify the thought - e.g. I knew this situation was going to cause a lapse. 

  • Challenge it - e.g. Is it all bad? Are there are any good things?  

  • Explore new thought - e.g. What is an alternative way to view this situation and what can I do differently next time? 

For example, you gave up smoking during Stoptober but had a cigarette at the Christmas party. 

  • Identify the thought - e.g. I knew this situation was going to cause a lapse. 

    • For example, you may feel frustrated, and blame yourself for not having the willpower to say no to having a cigarette. 

  • Challenge it - e.g. Is it all bad? Are there any good things?  

    • For example, acknowledging that a Christmas party was likely to be a challenging situation as you have only recently given up smoking and it was the first time you were faced with a social situation since quitting. But then thinking what good could come from this. Perhaps you didn’t enjoy it the way you did before, or you have a newfound motivation to get back on track with your quit attempt. 

  • Explore new thought - e.g. What is an alternative way to view this situation and what can I do differently next time? 

    • For example, when you're no longer in the situation, take the time to perhaps make a note of all the things you could do differently next time. E.g., bringing your nicotine replacement gum or vape, telling your colleagues you've quit so you have their support, or perhaps bringing something to hold in your hands like a pen, to try to prevent that fidgety feeling. Whatever works for you, having a mental note of this, and reminding yourself that you've done it before and can do it again can be helpful. 

Coping Strategies 

Recognising challenges or barriers that may come up and being aware of what our body needs, helps towards sustaining our healthy habits more effectively, as we can implement coping strategies to manage these situations. 

Tuning in to what you need 

This involves increased awareness of what your body really needs. Often in winter people find themselves engaging in certain behaviours, sometimes to bring comfort or familiarity. It can be helpful however, to spend some time reflecting on whether there is something else the body needs. During winter, people may find themselves eating more than they would at other times of the year. In some cases, we really are just hungrier, and it’s important to meet that need if you can, by eating well and nutritiously across the winter period. But in some cases, food can be used to cope with something else that we need. By taking a moment to stop and think, am I hungry? Or do I need something else? Am I tired, or feeling low, feeling cold, lonely, or bored perhaps?

By taking the time to acknowledge what we are feeling or needing, we can turn our attention to meeting that need, and therefore will likely have more success in sustaining our healthy habits. 


This can be used for any habit you might find yourself doing subconsciously, later realising, then feeling frustrated at yourself. Starting to do this more regularly helps bring conscious awareness to the habit or behaviour, so that it can start to be challenged. The 3Ds stands for: Delay, Distract, Decide 

  • Delay – Delay the habit or behaviour for a set period of time 

  • Distract – Distract yourself with something different 

  • Decide – Decide how you want to proceed afterwards 

For example, you really want a chocolate bar from the cupboard, or are craving a cigarette, or a glass of wine, but you know that this is not something you want to do because you always feel disappointed after, or wishing you hadn't.  

  • Delay – By delaying reaching for the item, you're giving your brain and your body a short period of time to break the subconscious habit, and become more present. This delay time period could be 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour, whatever time frame feels good for you. 

  • Distract – During this time, it is helpful to then distract yourself. With whatever that may be, watching TV, tidying, reading, going out for a walk. Anything that takes your mind away during this time. 

  • Decide – Then lastly, once that delay period is up, you decide what you want to do. A key thing with sustainable behaviour change is not telling yourself you can never have these things again, but just making more conscious decisions around our behaviours and our habits. So it may be that during that time period, the craving for whatever it was has gone. There may be times where it hasn't, and that's okay too. But giving yourself the opportunity to break the automaticity of the unhelpful habit means you may be better able to sustain the habits you do want to maintain. 


There are also several apps that can be used to help with accountability, or tracking if this is something you find helpful. It isn't something everyone likes to do, but it's having choices so that we can do as much as we can to support ourselves in sustaining healthy habits. The NHS has a few free apps for weight loss, getting more active, reducing drinking, or quitting smoking, as outlined below:  


  • NHS Weight Loss Plan 

  • My Fitness Pal 

  • Food Diaries 


  • Couch to 5K 

  • Active 10 


  • Drink Free Days 


  • Quit Smoking 

Managing our wellbeing during winter can be hard, but there are lots of techniques mentioned above to try to improve it. If you are struggling, there are a number of services and organisations outlined by the NHS available to help:

  • Samaritans 

    • Samaritans are available 24/7, and they can be contacted to talk through anything you are finding challenging, no matter how difficult. Contact details:  

    • Free to call on 116 123 

    • Or visit the website

  • Shout 85258 

    • Shout 85258 offers confidential 24/7 crisis text support for times when you need immediate assistance. Contact details: 

    • Text "SHOUT" to 85258 

    • Or visit the website

  • Papyrus 

    • If you're under 35 and are feeling that life is not worth living any more, the Papyrus Hopeline247 is available 24/7. Contact details: 

    • Call 0800 068 41 41 

    • Text 07786 209697 

    • Or visit the website

  • CALM  

    • The Campaign Against Living Miserably, for people in the UK who are feeling down. Contact details: 

    • Call 0800 585858 (daily 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year) 

    • Free, anonymous webchat accessible via the website

  • Hub of Hope 

    • The Hub of Hope is a national database that brings together local mental health services. All you need to do is enter your postcode and you will be provided with a list of all services available to you, depending on what you require support with. 

    • Visit the website