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Features / January 7, 2020

Fighting the winter gloom

by Siobhan Hiscott

Dark mornings and the return to work in the new year can take its toll on our health and wellbeing. Claire O’Farrell offers her top tips on fighting the January blues

Winter – and January especially – can be a challenge for our mental health and wellbeing for many reasons.

Dark, long, wintery days can leave us longing for summer, returning to work can feel like a monumental task, and overindulgence at Christmas can leave us feeling guilty and fatigued.

The combination is challenging for everyone. Remember that it is perfectly acceptable – and even expected – that we might feel this way.

On the bright side, research tell us that there are simple things that can help to improve our mental health and wellbeing. Here, I have collated some research into straightforward tips, to help positively cope with the winter blues.

1. The great outdoors

When the weather is cold, wet, and mostly dark, people often spend their days indoors, and this can affect our mood. One study (An et al, 2016) found that natural elements and sunlight exposure positively influence employee mental health and attitudes to work. This is because serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of wellbeing and happiness, is synthesised in sunlight.

Even when sunlight is limited, appreciating our natural surrounds has been shown to be beneficial for our mental health (Bowler et al, 2010). Think about walkways, parks, outdoor areas and seaside strolls in the vicinity. Is it possible to get out for a walk during the day? What are the resources in the area that can be re-discovered? Maybe we can actively travel to work one day a week. Where can nature be explored at the weekend?

Small daily changes like these can have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

2. Good sleep habits

Early rises can feel like a curse after sleeping late becomes the norm during time off. However, routine can have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing (Freeman et al, 2017). Daily habits such as our activity levels, what we eat, and how much sleep we get will all affect how we feel.

A good nightly routine is especially important, as sleep difficulties have been shown to be damaging to mental health. A regular night time routine, sometimes known as ‘sleep hygiene’, gives us the best chance for six to eight hours of restful sleep.

Avoid nicotine, eating, and drinking alcohol or caffeine late at night, as these can interrupt our sleep cycle. Try and keep bedrooms just for sleeping by making them free of anything work related and limiting screen time as much as possible.

Set the alarm and put phones on aeroplane mode an hour before bed, and consider reading to help nod off.

3. Keep active

New year’s resolution or not, exercise is always good for us. Exercise is one of the simplest and most beneficial things that we can do for our physical and mental health (Chekroud et al, 2018).

Our exercise habits can be upset by Christmas, but it’s important not to be hard on ourselves. Small changes will ease us back in – even choosing to walk or cycle to work a few times a week is a great start.

Little challenges keep us motivated and feeling proud of ourselves. Why not sign up to the local Parkrun this January? Parkruns take place every Saturday morning and they are free, timed events, where everyone is welcome to walk, jog, run, or volunteer.

Minding yourself

We hope that Mental Health Ireland’s three top tips will help to get you through the long month of January. Remember that it’s perfectly acceptable to feel a little depleted at this time of year.

If the challenges of January seem like too much, help is out there – take a look at the mental health resources box to the right, and, if you are concerned about your mental health in any way, don’t hesitate to contact your GP.

Promoting positive mental health

Mental Health Ireland is a national voluntary organisation whose aim is to promote positive mental health and wellbeing to all individuals and communities in Ireland. Visit for more information.

For further mental health resources:

  • Any dentist or dental care professional in Ireland who has a concern about their mental health can receive confidential help from experts at the Practitioner Health Matters Programme 
  • To find mental health supports and services near you, free phone anytime the information line on 1800 111 888 or visit
  • The Samaritans telephone service is available 24 hours a day for confidential, non-judgmental support on 116 123.


An M, Colarelli SM, O’Brien K, Boyajian ME (2016) Why we need more nature at work: effects of natural elements and sunlight on employee mental health and work attitudes. PLoS One 11(5): e0155614

Bowler, D, Buyung-Ali L, Knight T, Pullin A (2010) A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments. BMC Public Health 4(10): 456

Chekroud S, Gueorguieva R, Zheutlin A, Paulus M, Krumholz H, Krystal J, Chekroud A (2018) Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. Lancet Psychiatry 5(9): 739-746

Freeman D Sheaves B, Goodwin GM, Yu LM, Nickless A, Harrison PJ, Emsley R, Luik AI, Foster RG, Wadekar V, Hinds C, Gumley A, Jones R, Lightman S, Jones S, Bentall R, Kinderman P, Rowse G, Brugha T, Blagrove M, Gregory AM, Fleming L, Walklet E, Glazebrook C, Davies EB, Hollis C, Haddock G, John B, Coulson M, Fowler D, Pugh K, Cape J, Moseley P, Brown G, Hughes C, Obonsawin M, Coker S, Watkins E, Schwannauer M, MacMahon K, Siriwardena AN, Espie CA (2017) The effects of improving sleep on mental health (OASIS): a randomised controlled trial with mediation analysis. Lancet Psychiatry 4(10): 749-758

Claire O’Farrell is mental health promotion officer at Mental Health Ireland.