Winter months in Canada usually bring short days and dreary weather. Lower levels of natural sunlight result in dips in serotonin, the chemical in our bodies responsible for regulating our emotions. For those with arthritis and chronic pain, the winter can be particularly difficult. Snow and ice can make it more challenging for people with arthritis to get around. Fluctuating temperatures can cause flare-ups.

Sometimes, we experience more than just the winter blues. Low feelings can descend into prolonged periods of irritation and fatigue. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition that affects some people in the winter and is characterized by several weeks of continued depressive moods. A person with SAD will:

  • Lose interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Experience oversleeping or insomnia
  • Lose or gain weight
  • Feel hopeless, worthless, or guilty
  • Have difficulty concentrating

While winter can take a toll on our mental health, there are things we can do to minimize the impact.  This article will explore strategies for taking control of your mental wellness in the colder months.   

Staying Active

Our physical bodies and mental wellness are deeply interconnected. People with arthritis and other forms of chronic pain understand this well. Though the holiday season is a time to eat indulgently and relax, be mindful to take care of your body with exercise and healthy foods. A sedentary lifestyle can intensify chronic pain, causing the body to become stiff and achy from lack of movement. Studies have shown that physical exercise helps the body heal as well as releases hormones and brain chemicals that have mood enhancing effects similar to antidepressants.

In Canada we really need to plan ahead for how to stay active through the winter weather – whether it’s walking indoors, investing in a treadmill or stationary bike, doing yoga, or stretching.  Before starting any new exercise routine, be sure to consult with your doctor.  The Arthritis Society’s Staying Active module can help you keep moving indoors when it’s difficult to get outside.  You can also visit our 20-Minute Warm Up for the Joints video, as well as our Osteoarthritis Exercise Videos. One of the true silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many local programs are now offered online for free or low cost, which is great for the winter months. There are also many other helpful programs and resources on the internet worth exploring and a number of online workout programs you can do at home.  For example, Dr. Paul Lam offers an introduction and free lesson on Tai Chi for Arthritis, which can be done standing or seated (instruction begins at minute 14:10).

Eating Well

What we eat can have a big impact on how we feel, so between well-deserved treats it’s important to maintain a nutritious diet. Try to limit foods that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, as these can create spikes in blood sugar, leading to swings in mood and energy.  Instead, try to increase the amount of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes that you consume and replace red meat with fish and poultry. The DASH diet and Mediterranean diet, which are high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats, can not only help to reduce mood swings but also inflammation.  Caffeine and alcohol can take a negative toll on mental health, as caffeine is a stimulant that can lead to jitteriness and irritability, while alcohol is a depressant that can worsen depression and anxiety.  Alcohol can also interact with some arthritis medications.  It is better to stick to water or green or herbal tea.        

To learn more about the connection between diet and mood, visit our Mental Health module or download our Food and Mood tracker.  For healthy diet suggestions, visit our Eating Well module.  

Taking in some light

On days when you’re able, try to spend some time outdoors in the sunshine.  If you’re able to get on a walk, that’s great, but even just sitting in the sunshine for 10-15 minutes can make a difference.  Research has shown that sunlight can help boost mood, increase Vitamin D production, as well as help us sleep better at night. Some people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) have reported that a therapeutic light can be helpful, though consult with your doctor first.      

Connecting with others

One of the best things we can do to improve our mood is to find support in our community. Whether that means talking to family, friends, or reaching out for professional help, sharing our feelings almost always improves our health.

This year, amidst a global pandemic, it’s harder than ever to be in physical proximity of those we love. However, we can still prioritize social connections and intimacy. Spend time with your loved ones by phone or video chat. Schedule regular hangouts, not just on special occasions.  Check out our flourish article on Coping With Social Isolation This Winter for suggestions on how to stay connected.

Helping others can also do wonders to improve your mood. Whether it means volunteering online, assisting a neighbour, or helping our communities in other ways, it can often result in meeting new friends and finding personal satisfaction.

Finding support

Whether it’s the winter blues or long-term feelings of depression, a therapist or members of your treatment team can help treat both.  To learn more about the types of mental health care available, visit our Understanding Mental Healthcare resources.  The Government of Canada's Wellness Together resource can connect you to free mental health support.  For more information about mental health and community services in your area, you can visit www.211.ca or dial 211 from any Canadian province or territory. 

The Fountain of Health is also a great resource for self-care strategies to help you through the winter.  Visit the Fountain of Health's Self-Care Tips in Stressful Times  on the main page with links to virtual programs in each of the self-care domains, or learn more about The Wellness App, a free web-based program that is smart-phone friendly and useable on any device. 

Conclusion

This winter, take control of your mental health. Get proactive by taking in the sun, paying attention to your physical body, and talking to someone about how you feel to improve your mental wellness. Visit our website for more information on ways to manage your pain and access our Mental Health resources.  Our online lifestyle magazine flourish also offers lots of delicious recipes rich in nutrients to help you manage your arthritis.

Content created by Meg Zhang with expert advice from:  

Keri-Leigh Cassidy, MD, FRCPC
Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University
Clinical Academic Director, Geriatric Psychiatry/ Seniors' Mental Health Program
Founder, Fountain of Health Initiative of Optimal Aging 

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