Rachel, an administrative assistant with a vibrant personality never fails to light up a room and bring a sense of joy to her coworkers. That is, until January hits. Something about the cold, dark months in New England ushers Rachel into her cocoon where she hides until the days get longer and brighter. She shows up for work, but struggles every step of the way. Rachel has told me many times that she wishes this time away. A third of one’s life is a big chunk of time to be wishing away. She thinks about moving to a warmer climate, but her deep connections with her friends and family are in the Boston area.
Perhaps it is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), although she has never been formally diagnosed. Rachel continues to work, muscling through one day at a time, taking time off when possible to go to some place warm and sunny. Like a bear emerging from hibernation, Rachel gradually joins the world of the living sometime in the latter part of March. The twinkle in her eyes returns as does her infectious personality.
Rachel is in good company with those who suffer from “winter blues” and come undone during the cold, dark months. With my patients and among my friends I often observe that this is the time of year when depression sets in for many, with or without Seasonal Affective Disorder. Complaints like lethargy, flu-like symptoms, lack of concentration, weight gain, stress, anxiety and increased pain issues abound during the winter months.
The good news is that it is possible to combat the battle against the “winter blues,” by embracing certain strategies. Taking certain proactive steps can counteract the doldrums and despondency that this season sometimes brings. With practice it is even possible to experience winter from a new lens that allows you to cherish this time.
Here are ten strategies that are guaranteed to guide you back to a place of balance, well-being and heightened energy.
1. Start your day with a positive affirmation. Before even getting out of bed, think about something good about your day ahead. Create a simple, positive statement that resonates with you and refer to it often. For example, “I feel balanced, blessed and happy.” Take a moment to let this idea sink into your consciousness. When negative thoughts come up, reframe these thoughts from a positive perspective. The more you practice being positive the easier it will become to internalize these thoughts.
2. Build exercise and physical activity into your day. Take a brisk walk or swim if you belong to a club, work out at home or the gym, dance in your living room, have sex with your partner, take zumba or a yoga class. Exercise and physical activity boosts energy, improves mood and sense of well-being, combats health conditions and diseases, controls weight, promotes better sleep, and in general make you happier and more enlivened. To experience the optimal benefits of physical activity aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise daily.
3. Practice a meditation or relaxation technique. Ten to fifteen minutes of meditation or relaxation once or twice daily reduces stress, improves mood, enhances quality of life, helps regulate a sense of well-being, diminishes stress, anxiety and pain. It is one of the most concentrated actions you can take to feeling more aware, balanced, focused and happier. If you do not want to meditate, then build in some extra down time for relaxation, sleep, or simply more quiet time.
4. Make friends and loved ones a priority. Winter is a great time to nurture your relationships. If you cannot get together physically, then connect with friends on the phone, Skype or some form of social media. Face-to-face contact is best, but making contact via any mode of communication trumps isolation. Consider building into your schedule a regular game of cards or mah jong, potluck dinners, or movie nights with your buds to get you out of the house. You might also enlist a friend’s company when you exercise.
5. Maintain a healthy diet. Simple carbohydrates, otherwise known as white sugar and white flour products may seem comforting on these dark and cold days. However, these foods are largely devoid of nutrients and tend to zap your energy level. The foods you choose to eat influence your overall health, ability to concentrate, and psychological well-being. To stabilize your blood sugar levels reach for the vegetables, complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fruits. Make soups, stews and broths. They are loaded with nutritional value and warm your insides while infusing your home with rich aromas.
6. Get sunshine when possible. Studies show that it is important for those who work indoors to get outside and into the sunlight periodically. It is also best to sleep in total darkness. This can influence melatonin rhythms, which can result in better moods, energy levels, and sleep quality. Sunlight also increases the body’s vitamin D supply, which helps with immune system functioning. On sunny days consider cranking up the heat in the car and keeping the sunroof open, even if just for a few minutes at a time. You will be deriving the benefits of the sunshine and the cold air can be quite exhilarating.
7. Embrace the beauty of the winter season. If you don’t already, consider taking up snowshoeing, cross-country or downhill skiing. Buy yourself some crampons for the bottom of your shoes so that you can safely walk outside on the ice, if you dare. Getting outside even for a little while, especially while the sun is shining lifts your spirit and changes your perspective. Take a camera if you are so inclined. Once you find a way to enjoy the season, you will find it not only easier to tolerate, but you may begin to cherish the magnificence of a cold, crisp wintry day!
8. Make a fire at home and get cozy. If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace, use it! Light candles and find other ways to create a cozy space in your home. Make a ritual of snuggling up with a book or playing games with friends or family. Winter is a time when you can more readily give yourself permission to relax and soak in the comfort of the indoors.
9. Engage in flow activities. Flow activities are any activities that you find pleasurable and while engaging in them, you lose track of time. For example: singing, playing music, painting, reading, writing, long walks in nature, photography, art projects, cleaning out closets and drawers. These activities help enliven the spirit and bring you back into a state of balance and happiness.
10. Focus on the big picture. What are your priorities? Are you just getting by or are you making each day count? Are you being true to yourself and honoring your deepest needs and desires? Everyday that you put energy into living in your truth you will bring yourself to a place a greater joy. Finding balance and happiness is about making each day count, even in the dead of winter. Combining some or all of these strategies will bring you greater vitality, which in turn will make you feel good physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
In all likelihood you are practicing some of these strategies already. Every day is an opportunity to stretch your abilities and go deeper into finding the wisdom of your mind and body. Winter can be a magnificent time to hone your skills and find a new sense of beauty and wonder.
How do you find pleasure during the winter months?
Photo credit to Andrea Danee Peterson