People with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the clinical version of the winter blues, aren’t the only ones who struggle with the shorter days, colder weather, and the general blah of the winter months. Less sunlight can affect the circadian rhythm, the body’s biological clock that governs certain brain wave activity and hormone production. If you’re human, chances are you’ve woken up on a gray, wintry day and wanted to stay inside, cuddled up on the couch. For older people, and for folks who are sensitive to the cold, it’s even tougher. I am not a huge winter fan, so I have to work extra hard on my mental health during the colder months.
Here are a few techniques I keep in mind.
1. Behave like You’re From Michigan
I learned an important lesson when visiting my family in northern Michigan. When snow hit the ground in October and didn’t leave until the end of May: They would adapt! They love it. They make a trip to L.L. Bean in the fall, get all the necessary gear, and go ice-fishing, ice-skating, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and do everything in their power to appreciate the very elements that we sometimes curse. By February, I usually can’t take being inside anymore, so I tried to behave like I was from Michigan. I started running in the snow, putting booties on my dogs and taking them for walks, ice skating (we have a lovely ice rink at Head Waters Park) I even tried cross country skiing. Once I started acting like Michiganders, and stopped resisting the cold temperature and the better I tolerated it.
2. Wear Bright Colors
Studies have showed that bright colors can give you energy, make you feel empowered or inspired, and even romantic or passionate. It’s no coincident that sporting companies started designing athletic wear in neon colors. These colors subconsciously make us motived or energized to workout. So why not try to apply that same concept in the winter months and mix up that black wardrobe we tend to gravitate towards. I make a conscious effort to wear bright green, purple, mauve, and mustard, and sometimes — if I’m in a rush — all of them together.
3. Stock Up on Vitamin D
Since we get most of our vitamin D from the sun, it’s a good idea to take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months. So many diseases are correlated with low vitamin D levels, especially depression. Certain foods are also a good source of vitamin D, including cod liver oil, salmon, tuna, milk, yogurt, sardines, eggs, mushrooms, and cereals fortified with vitamin D. It also helps to eat foods that will help you absorb Vitamin D too. Those foods consist of avocados, nut, seeds, eggs, and fatty dairy products.
4. Make a Book and Movie List
Winter is a great time to get to those books and movies you’ve been meaning to read and watch. While I encourage getting outside, sometimes the snow is just too high or the roads are just too icy. Since plenty of research has indicated that humor can relieve pain, I like to watch comedy. I also have a 9 month old niece, so I’m sure Disney movies are going to soon be a favorite of mine. But that’s ok! I love musicals and I love my niece. Since Covid, I have seen a lot of virtual book clubs. This could be something fun to start with some close friends or your family.
5. Hang with Positive People
This is especially critical in the winter when you’re typically spending a lot of time inside with people chatting over a cup of coffee. If the negativity gets too thick, it can become suffocating. The people around you influence you more than you think. Studies have shown individuals who associated themselves with happy people were more likely to be happy themselves.
6. Try Something New
For a while now, we’ve known that the brain changes and develops over the course of our lives. We are not stuck with the noggin we were born with. Trying something new essentially rewires our brain. Take advantage of your days indoors to learn a new musical instrument (or maybe just a new piece of music), try your hand at a new card game, or maybe cook up something different for dinner. My family and I rotate who is going to cook Sunday dinner and then we vote on who we think had the best dinner. This not only involves us learning to cook new recipes, but we are nourishing out bodies with vitamin D, surrounding ourselves with positive people, and usually watching a movie or playing a game after dinner. In just one dinner we are incorporating four of my tips so far!
7. Start a Project
There’s no time like winter to start a home project, like de-cluttering the house or purging all the old clothes that you haven’t worn in years but for some reason are still holding onto. When a friend of mine was going through a tough time, she painted her entire house. Not only did it help distract her from her problems, but it provided her with a sense of accomplishment that she desperately needed those months: something to feel good about and the colors she picked made her feel re-invented. If you’re not motivated to paint the whole house like my friend, projects like organizing bookshelves, shredding old tax returns, and cleaning out that infamous junk drawer that we all have are perfect activities for the dreary months of the year.
8. Eat Winter Mood Foods
If you have a slow cooker, winter is a great time to experiment with tasty mood-boosting soups and stews. Some great fall and winter ingredients to include are squash (a great source of magnesium and potassium), eggplant (which contains fiber, copper, vitamin B1, and manganese), sweet potatoes (full of pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, biotin, and anti-inflammatory flavonoids), and turmeric (which assists with immune-inflammatory or stress pathways). And if you’re anything like me, you have to have a cheese toasty to go with you soup!
9. Use a Sun Lamp
My childhood home had a heat lamp in the bathroom. Now I know it’s not quite the same as a sun lamp but it was so soothing to sit under and let the heat hit my face. It was almost meditative. Bright-light therapy has proven to be an effective treatment for SAD because, as I mentioned earlier, less sunlight affects our circadian rhythms. Some health clubs offer light-box rooms where you can go sit in front of the boxes if you can’t afford to buy one for yourself. It’s important to position the light box according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and to use it at the same time each day, typically for 30 to 60 minutes.
10. Sit by the Fire
It’s primal, that feeling you get when you stick your face into a hot glowing fire. There’s something so consoling about staring into the embers and warming your hands by their heat. But you need not go to the trouble of building a fire in your house: You can borrow someone else’s fire — a coffee shop’s, or even the one in our lobby — or you can simply light a few candles and enjoy a primal moment to remind you that you belong to this world of human beings that have sat around fires for thousands of years to get warm and enjoy a moment of stillness. For an extra bonus, bring a cup of hot chocolate or order a coffee to sip on while you sit by the fire. This is a good time to reflect back on all the things we have to be grateful for. Even during these trying times that 2020 has brought us.