How to boost your motivation levels during winter

Most of us know the feeling. It's the middle of winter, it's very cold outside, the mornings are dark and the only place you want to be is buried beneath the duvet. Decreased motivation levels and low mood can impact all aspects of our lives. But why exactly do we feel less motivated during the colder months? And how do we combat winter tiredness?

Why do we feel less motivated during winter?

If you're feeling in a bit of a slump this winter, chances are, you're not the only one. The fact is, we can't always control our motivation levels, as the weather can have an impact. Dr M M Qadri, a consultant in forensic psychiatry and medical psychotherapy, says the right amount of sunlight is crucial for mood and energy.

Serotonin is a hormone that regulates happiness levels. Exposure to sunlight can increase the amount of serotonin released in the brain. This boosts your mood and your concentration, and makes you feel calmer. Low levels of serotonin put you at higher risk of seasonal depression.

Sunlight can also trigger melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleeping pattern. Interrupted or irregular sleep can reduce your energy levels. This means more effort is required to complete small tasks.

What can you do to boost your motivation levels this winter?

Dr Qadri says the first step to increasing your motivation is being kind to yourself.

"You have to acknowledge that you will not always have high levels of motivation. At certain times of the year, your mood will dip, but that's OK. Accepting this can be empowering, as it removes the guilt and shame of not achieving your ordinary levels of activity. This sense of awareness will provide lifelong skills to help you navigate difficult periods. Expecting high levels of productivity from yourself 24/7 is neither realistic nor healthy."

He also advises undertaking activities that you ordinarily enjoy, and not necessarily those related to productivity. Doing things simply because you enjoy them, rather than obsessing over hitting a goal, can boost your serotonin.

This can also increase your general mood and, consequently, provide a much needed motivation boost for other activities. In cognitive behavioural therapy, this technique is called behavioural activation - an evidence-based treatment for depression, based on the idea that increasing your pleasurable activity level can combat low mood.

Other simple things you can do for a motivation boost throughout the day are:

  • Waking up early.
  • Writing to-do lists.
  • Rewarding yourself when you complete a task or meet a deadline.
  • Going for a walk when you feel yourself in need of an energy boost.
  • Creating goals that are realistic and attainable.
  • Switching up your routine so everyday doesn't look the same.

How can you practise self-care if your mental health is suffering during winter?

Dr Qadri stresses the importance of practising self-care during winter and being aware of how your mental health is affected by a change of seasons and environment. You can then choose activities that provide you with some personal benefit.

Some simple self-care activities include:

  • Reading a book.
  • Journaling.
  • Listening to a podcast.
  • Doing something creative.
  • Engaging in physical exercise.
  • Meeting up with friends and family.

Do you need to feel motivated all the time?

You may have been conditioned to be 'on it' all the time. Many of us live fast-paced lives, and there's a lot of pressure to hit deadlines, keep up appearances and always be put-together. However, you won't feel like you can conquer the world every single day. Forcing yourself to do so (rather than resting or taking some time away when you are stressed) can cause burnout.

Dr Qadri says it's completely natural to feel more motivated at certain times, since hormones and mechanisms in the human body respond to changes in the day.

"When you feel less motivated, take a break, do something you enjoy or undertake a more mechanical task which requires less motivation. The key is not to feel guilty or like you are less worthy when you are not motivated. Our worth as people is not determined by our productivity."

When should you be concerned about low mood during winter?

While it's perfectly fine to have down days, it's also vital you don't just allow yourself to suffer. Persistent low mood could be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern; however, its symptoms tend to be more severe in winter.

Symptoms of SAD
These include:
  • Persistent low mood.
  • Loss of interest in activities you would normally enjoy.
  • Feeling irritable.
  • Feeling guilty, despondent or worthless.
  • Fatigue and sleeping during the day.
  • Finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Craving carbohydrates or gaining weight.

If you are struggling to cope with the change in seasons, you should see your GP. They can assess your mental health and lifestyle habits to offer appropriate treatment. Treatment might include talking therapies and, in more severe cases, antidepressants. Lifestyle changes such as exercising and stress management techniques might be suggested too.

A common treatment for SAD is light therapy. This involves using a special light box to stimulate your exposure to sunlight which, as mentioned above, can be the catalyst for a drop in mood and motivation.

Where can you reach out to if you need professional support for your mental well-being this winter?

You shouldn't disregard your mental health, as it is as important as your physical health. Dr Qadri suggests making a GP appointment if your low mood persists or decreased motivation impacts on your daily life. 

"When discussing with your doctor the effects of the cold on your mood, they may need to rule out possible physical health conditions. These include anaemia, vitamin D deficiency or an underactive thyroid condition."

Once a physical health cause has been excluded, your GP can help with treatment for your low mood. This could include a course of medication or cognitive behavioural therapy.

Be prepared

Dr Qadri also stresses the importance of preparation, especially if you know your mental health is likely to suffer as winter approaches.

"I think it's important to be proactive about the changing of seasons. Weather is difficult to predict in the UK, but it's pretty certain that it will be cold, wet and dark during winter. Preparing beforehand and making sure you have coping strategies in place for when you're struggling can reduce the impact of low mood.

"In the same way that people employ personal trainers to assist with their physical health, we should also use simple interventions with mental health. These can be self-help methods - from doodling to meditating. Or, you might want to explore private therapy. There's a misconception that you must be very ill to deserve professional support, but we can actually all benefit from having a safe space to express our feelings without judgement and expectation."

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