Winter Blues

Winter Blues

Winter blues is not a diagnosis but a general term and it means feeling sad and down, melancholic and unhappy and it´s related to the shortening of daylight hours and Autumn or Winter approaching. They are often linked to something specific, such as stressful holidays or reminders of absent loved ones.

On the other hand, Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of affective disorder related to changes in seasons. The symptoms usually start in Autumn and continue into the winter months, and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. The symptoms may include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Low energy
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Changes in your appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having thoughts of death

Winter blues are usually temporary and the symptoms disappear, while Seasonal Affective Disorder can last for several months.

Causes

The specific causes remain unknown, but some factors that may come into play include the changes in the circadian rhythm (your body´s internal clock), and a drop in the serotonin and melatonin levels.

Usually the happiest days are those in which we make plans; weekends.

Some people also change their activity when Autumn starts. Since it´s colder and darker outside, they find it more difficult to keep up with the activities they used to do and enjoy during Spring and Summer and so when they stop or reduce these activities, there is a drop in the dopamine levels too.

There is a direct link between the number of pleasurable activities that we do and the quality of our mood. Usually the happiest days of the week are the days where people do more pleasurable activities: the weekends. In the weekends we usually spend more time with friends, we read our favourite book, play sports, and do other activities that boost our mood. This also happens when we are on holidays. When we do pleasurable activities, we increase our dopamine levels.

Strategies to deal with the symptoms

Our mood is a result of imaginary scales, where we weigh the quantity and quality of negative and positive events. The days getting shorter, the reduction of sunlight hours and the worsening of the weather conditions may lead to the reduction of outdoor activities and therefore, the reduction of positive events. If we want to improve our mood, we will then need to increase the positive events and activities and reduce the negative events when possible.

The first step would then be to increase the number of activities that we used to do and go back to the activities that we stopped doing before we started to feel low. We may use our memories and our reason and leave our actual mood aside in order to complete the following table:

Difficulty Level of Satisfaction
Past Pleasurable Activities (Activities that we used to do but stopped doing)
Present Pleasurable Activities (Activities that we still do)
Future Pleasurable Activities (Activities that we never tried before but that we think we would enjoy)

The first step will be for us to choose the present and past activities, and the activities that we know will take a very low effort but will provide a high level of satisfaction. For example, we cannot start by going to the gym three times a week when we have never been to the gym before. It would be easier to play guitar first if we used to play guitar in the past (low effort, high satisfaction).

Second, we will need to focus on completing the time we set for the specific activity: E.g. Playing guitar for ten minutes, instead of focusing on the results (playing a full song perfectly).

The goal is overcoming the inertia, not to obtain outstanding results in our chosen activity. So even when we don’t achieve a perfect performance, we have met our goal (to stop the circle of loss).

El círculo de la pérdida

Here are some other tips for you to beat the Winter Blues:

  • Waking up an hour early to benefit from the sunlight (So we increase our melatonin levels)
  • Our brain is usually very grateful when stimulated. As winter approaches, everything gets darker and colourless. Seeking a colourful life and exposing ourselves to those colours can stimulate our brains. For example, you can go outside to a place where there is grass and colourful buildings; you can watch videos full of colour.
  • Doing exercise: it is proven that exercise can increase our energy levels and reactivate our mind and body (we may need to start with low effort and high pleasurable activities and set very small goals to ourselves at first).
  • Trying not to anticipate the darkness. Being conscious of the present moment and enjoying the daylight hours as much as we can.
  • Being creative: Using these months to work on a goal that we set to ourselves can be a great motivation. It is important to start by taking very small steps towards that goal.
  • Another suggestion is to purchase SAD lights. They do not “cure” Winter Blues but have proven to improve our Melatonin and Vitamin D levels and therefore ease the symptoms.
  • Improving our diet. There are some foods that make us feel better. Eating foods with high amounts of tryptophan will naturally increase melatonin production. Tryptophan is an amino acid that our body does not produce naturally, but it is needed in the production of melatonin. Tryptophan can be found in most foods that contain protein, including almonds, oats, turkey, chicken, and cottage cheese. Also having a balanced diet and drinking lots of water can make us feel more energetic.
  • Last but not least, it is very important not to be hard on ourselves. There is an explanation for our symptoms, and putting lots of pressure or judging ourselves is not going to make the symptoms better. Positive reinforcement (giving ourselves nice treats) has been proven to be more effective than punishment (self-criticism).

Remember: The more we do, the better or symptoms get, the more activities we include in our routines, the more dopamine we obtain, so the more activities we do, the less and less difficult gets to get going.

If after following these tips you still feel low and moody, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) has been proven to be the most effective treatment for these symptoms. A qualified therapist can guide us to get through the Winter Blues symptoms.

Marta Gray Nuñez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Marta Gray Nuñez
Clinical Psychologist
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé

The Treatment of Emotional Trauma With EMDR

The Treatment of Emotional Trauma With EMDR

Emotional trauma and its components

Trauma is an emotional response to an event. Traumatic events include physical, psychological and sexual abuse, terrorism and war, accidents, witnessing a life-threatening event or violence against others or yourself, natural disasters and domestic violence. Even having a childhood with no support or warmth can create a trauma in some people.

Short-term reactions include flashbacks, shock and denial, and long-term reactions may include flashbacks, mood swings and symptoms like nightmares, insomnia, somatic disturbances, difficulty with intimate relationships, loss of trust, depression, substance abuse problems, or even suicidal behaviours. Survivors often wait years to receive help while others never receive treatment at all.

Sometimes the way people interiorize these traumas is by creating dysfunctional beliefs about one's self. These beliefs may include: “I am worthless, I am not important, I am disgusting, I am unlovable, …” amongst other beliefs.

Possible treatments for emotional trauma

There are a wide range of effective treatment interventions that can help to diminish the severity of these symptoms.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy,
  • Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and
  • Acceptance and commitment Therapy

are evidence-based techniques that alleviate some of the trauma´s symptoms, such as the mood swings, the dysfunctional thoughts and even the suicidal behaviours, the insomnia and the difficulties with intimate relationships. But there are some cases where some of these symptoms are unlikely to disappear with the treatment interventions described above. When this happens, it is important to add different approaches in our treatment plan.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) can be a good option for these cases.

EMDR, stress and the processing of traumatic events in our brain.

In some cases when someone goes through a traumatic experience, their brain tends to isolate the synaptic connections between neurons related to that specific event. This is a “survival” mechanism that our brain uses so we can continue with our normal lives after the event. Say, for example, that we witness an accident. Stress begins with something called the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis, a series of interactions between endocrine glands which controls our body’s reaction to stress. When our brain detects a stressful situation, our HPA axis is instantly activated and we then secrete a hormone called cortisol, which primes our body for instant action.

Sometimes stress can even increase the activity level and number of neural connections in the amygdala, our brain’s fear centre. And as levels of cortisol rise, electric signals in our hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning, memories, and stress control, deteriorate.

The information is stored in the central nervous system, together with the negative core beliefs and the emotional and physical sensations that the person experienced when the traumatic event took place. All this information remains stored as if the trauma was still happening right now. These patterns of thoughts are stimulated, activated or originated by current stimuli that lead the person to react in a similar way as how they reacted in the past.

EMDR enables the person to process all the traumatic memories so they can develop adaptative behaviours. Once all these memories have been processed, there is also a physiological change.

The EMDR allows the person to generalise the positive cognitions by processing the Traumatic memories. These memories are distributed throughout the neural networks and the processing thus enables the person to perform adaptative behaviours in the present.

Once the memories have been processed, a physiological change takes place so that the traumatic memory softens together with the corresponding associated beliefs, feelings and physical sensations. We would have then reduced the blockage (the dysfunctional stored information) and reprocessed, reduced or eliminated the negative beliefs associated with the trauma.

Some human reactions are learnt behaviours. They might be very convenient and serve us for a certain period of time. For example, a woman that suffered repeated sexual assaults from a family member during her childhood, may have developed a dissociative disorder. That was her way to deal with fear and trauma at the time.

Dissociation ranges from a mild emotional detachment from the person’s surroundings to a disconnection from physical and emotional experiences.

It is a coping mechanism in seeking to tolerate stress and involves a detachment from reality and is very common among people who have suffered from trauma. As an adult, that same person might now find herself also dissociating from stressful work-related situations. When she was a child, dissociation was the only way she found to deal with the stressors and it was an adaptative behaviour. As an adult, the dissociation may be hindering other areas in her day-to day life, such as work, family or school.

Another example can be a person that has a completely adaptative life but that feels extreme and intense negative emotions that seem to come “out of the blue”. These emotions are usually triggered by stimuli that remind the person of the trauma, and that the person might not even be conscious of.

EMDR works with eye movements, focusing on memories, thoughts, emotions or physical sensations related to memories about the past, the present or situations that may happen in the future.

Do you think you can benefit from EMDR? Get in touch with us!

Marta Gray Nuñez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Marta Gray Nuñez
Clinical Psychologist
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé

Living Together and Quarantine. Tips for Couples

Living Together and Quarantine. Tips for Couples

Life as a couple is another aspect that has been affected by the coronavirus crisis. Spending 24 hours a day with your partner at home without other distractions such as work, daily routines and leisure activities outside the home can generate a tedious or even conflictive climate. This could highlight differences and create tensions in the environment different from those we are used to in our relationship.

Therefore, it is important to better understand this situation and seek to create a harmonious space at home, helping each other as a team to deal with the reality of social isolation and to cope with this crisis with mutual support.

There are some difficult aspects to endure when living as a couple, and they become even more challenging when going through a situation full of uncertainty, worries and temporary loss of our freedom among other losses that we are all experiencing at the present time.

After listening to some testimonies from the couples we attend, we are able to distinguish different dynamics during the quarantine. Some couples had “hidden” conflicts that have become apparent since they are spending 24 hours a day together. Other couples are enhancing the positive aspects of their relationship as their work-related stress and workload has diminished and therefore, they have more time and motivation to strengthen their relationship. There are some others that have come to the conclusion that the problem was not their relationship but the emotional burden they would take home when working outside.

There are some steps to follow in order to enhance the enrichment of the relationship during quarantine and are described below:

1. Assertiveness, Empathy and Communication

It is beneficial to be assertive when communicating with our loved ones and therefore it becomes essential during quarantine. We use assertiveness in order to communicate in a concise and safe way so we can reduce conflicts while we respect both our point of view and the other person’s. To do so, assertiveness requires “I” messages (For example: “I feel” instead of “You make me feel”), empathy (there is always a reason why they behaved as they did, even when we find it difficult to identify that reason), and detailing the situation or describing facts instead of making interpretations (for example: “you have left the dishes unwashed” instead of “you are trying to annoy me”). The last step would be to put forward suggestions so we can prevent the same conflict to happen in the future.

There is always a reason behind someone´s behaviour. By communicating and questioning the motives of those behaviours, we will increase our wellbeing and decrease the possible negative interpretations.

We have the right to be a little bit more anxious these days, but our partner might interpret our behaviour in a negative way if we don’t communicate. It will never hurt to say “Today I woke up a little upset, I am sorry if I am acting differently”. We have the right to feel negative emotions provided that we don´t behave in a hurtful way.

2. Happy diary and enhancing intimacy

We and our partners both usually try and do things for the other person. Communicating our partner that we really liked that little gesture he or she had with us today can be very beneficial. Our partner can do the same back. The only way to eliminate negativity is by introducing positive incentives and stimuli. We can also pay attention to all those positive things that had happened today thanks to our partner and communicate it to them.

Another way of introducing positive stimuli is by enhancing intimacy, for example by hugging each other more often, sitting closer to each other, holding hands while watching a film, …

3. Avoid perfectionism

It is not the right time to be perfect. It is completely normal to behave differently when we are feeling negative emotions or when we have completely transformed our routine. We are not perfect; we are human beings under difficult circumstances and therefore by being more flexible and understanding both with the other person and ourselves we can feel a lot calmer during this period of time.

To do so, we can use self-talk statements. Would we ask someone to be 100% perfect when they had just lost their freedom? We can say to ourselves something like: “This is a difficult time; we are both losing an overwhelming number of important things and I am trying my best considering my circumstances and abilities”. As human beings, we are constantly trying to improve and to become the best version of ourselves. If we are not doing that right now, we might consider our circumstances are stopping us to achieve our goals and that we are not to blame.

4. Time to ourselves

Sometimes we tend to think that the best relationship comes as a result of sharing all our spare time together. There are lots of activities and hobbies that we can share with each other, but some of them might only be enjoyable by one member of the relationship. We cannot expect our partner to like the same activities and to have the same attitude towards a specific hobby. At the end of the day we are different human beings with diverse preferences and desires and demanding our partner to meet all our expectations can be a source of unnecessary conflicts and become strenuous.

Having time to ourselves give us space to reflect and to manage our emotions in a healthier way, as well as time to process what is happening now and the opportunity to enjoy all those activities that are only enjoyable on our own.

For example, since your partner never used to go with you to the gym in the past, do not try for him/her to join your daily exercise at home these days. If, for example, your partner used to enjoy playing videogames but you´d rather read a good book, allow your partner to have that me-time. The reality is that we all need activities that make us feel happy so we are emotionally balanced and stable, and we do not need our partner to share all their time and activities with ourselves. We can also look for all those solo activities that make us feel good, on top of sharing other activities with our partner. It is crucial to be able to find happiness within ourselves too.

5. Emotional understanding

We can keep a record of what are we feeling (name of the emotion), how intense it is (from 0 to 10) and what are the strategies that will help us to alleviate those symptoms each day. When an emotion is understood and given solutions to, it eventually fades away. This can also help us for communicating our partners how we feel so we avoid possible interpretations of our behaviours.

For example, when we feel anxious, we can try to find out what we are worried about and make a list of possible alternatives or solutions to this worry. If the worry continues or it´s too intense after doing so, we can try to distract ourselves. Psychologists recommend to worry for just a little amount of time during the day.

If we are sad, we can make a list of activities that usually make us feel happier, for example watch documentaries, sewing, talk to our loved ones…

It is also important to understand and validate our partner´s emotions. Understanding the reason why our partner feels anxious or sad may not always be possible. We are different human beings and therefore we have diverse past experiences and different coping strategies. Our partner might have learnt other abilities and may be experiencing the situation from another perspective.

If you find yourself struggling after trying all these strategies, do not hesitate to get in touch with us. We offer psychological and psychiatric therapy in multiple languages.

 

Marta Gray

General Health Psychologist at Sinews MTI

Marta Gray Nuñez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Marta Gray Nuñez
Clinical Psychologist
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé