Health and Wellness, Mental Health, Self-Care

How to Stay Mentally Healthy During Winter

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As the daylight wanes and the weather starts to get chilly, many of us might be starting to feel the first pangs of sadness about the coming of winter. I know I am.

For me, it seems to start after the fall colors have faded and daylight savings time has ended. I find that my energy and motivation starts to dwindle, especially as night begins to fall earlier and earlier each evening. I usually fade fast once my daylight is gone, and I start to adopt the bedtime habits of a grandma. (8:00? Is that too early to go to bed?)

All joking aside, seasonal dips in mood and energy can really take a toll. Those of us who suffer from anxiety or depression might struggle a little extra with the coming of winter. Plus, we all tend to be less active and stay at home more during the winter anyway, and with the pandemic still raging, we might feel the effects of isolation even more acutely this year. 

I want to talk today about how we can prepare ourselves for this season — how we can take steps to love and care for ourselves now to stay resilient, adaptable, and able to handle the lows that may be coming in the months ahead.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

If you struggle at this time of year, you’re far from alone. It’s common to feel a little under the weather as the winter approaches. But for people who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it’s more serious than a case of the “winter blues”. SAD is a form of cyclical depression that usually sets in during the fall and lingers through the winter. 

Somewhere around 5% of American adults experience SAD symptoms such as:

  • Feeling down or sad
  • A loss of interest even in favorite activities
  • An increase or decrease in appetite
  • A change in your sleep patterns
  • A low energy level
  • Restlessness
  • Feelings of guilt or low worth
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions

Although it usually starts to subside when spring rolls around, SAD can make you feel miserable for a few months. And if you’ve got underlying anxiety or depression to begin with, your symptoms could be more severe.

Winter and Isolation

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For a lot of us, winter also means that we don’t get out and about as much. This year, the pandemic will probably keep us at home even more often since it could be a challenge to safely spend time with friends and family. Feeling cooped up at home could lead to feeling lonely and isolated.

We’ve got some unique challenges ahead for the coming winter, but that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to feeling lousy until spring arrives. Here are some ways we can proactively bolster our mental health and keep ourselves well throughout the winter season.

Tips for Staying Well Throughout the Winter

Eat a balanced diet.

I know that eating healthy probably sounds like really obvious advice. We all know eating a balanced diet is good for our long-term health — but did you know the foods we eat can also have an enormous impact on how we feel day-to-day?

I should know. I’m a stress eater. I eat pretty decently most of the time, but I have a tendency to load up on junk food and sweets when I’m stressed or in a low mood. And in the moment, sugar does give a quick boost of feelgood chemicals. It activates reward centers in your brain and boosts levels of dopamine — the same neurotransmitter that cocaine releases in huge quantities.

The problem is, after the dopamine high wears off, your blood sugar plummets, and you wind up feeling more crappy than before. According to Healthline, eating a high-sugar diet increases the odds of mood disorders in men and women. Sugar is also addictive and can make you reliant on its fleeting mood-boosting effects.

You don’t have to swear off all sweet treats. But especially if you know you’re prone to anxiety, depression, or SAD, you might want to reduce your sugar intake this winter and opt for more nutrient-rich foods to support your mental health.

Make sleep a priority.

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Along with eating a nutritious diet, sleep is crucial for good mental health. Our bodies and brains need this time to regenerate, repair, and rest. Poor sleep not only leaves us feeling cranky and on-edge; it actually reduces our ability to manage stress. Studies have also shown that people with insomnia may have twice the risk of developing depression as people who sleep normally. 

Of course, stress and depression can also make sleep more challenging, which may create a vicious cycle. Practicing good sleep hygiene –such as sticking to a regular bedtime and unplugging electronics before winding down for the night — could help you develop healthy sleeping habits. Doing a little breathing work or mindful practice before you go to bed can calm your mind and set the stage for a good night’s rest.

If you’re struggling with getting adequate sleep, you may want to talk with your doctor. They might suggest taking supplements or even medications to aid with sleep. And a therapist can help you work through anxiety or other issues that are keeping you awake at night.

Ask your doctor about light therapy.

Light therapy is a recognized form of treatment for SAD. It involves sitting near a box that radiates a bright light, similar to the natural light you’d see outdoors. The extra light exposure is believed to alter brain chemicals that affect your mood and sleep patterns, which can alleviate some symptoms of depression.

Although it’s generally safe, it comes with some risks and possible side effects — so make sure to check with your doctor before beginning light therapy. 

Get creative.

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Expressing yourself through creativity is a marvelous antidote to anxiety, depression, and winter doldrums. Taking part in creative activities has known benefits for mental health, such as reducing depression and anxiety, increasing positivity, and possibly even boosting our immune system.

And creativity doesn’t only include artistic activities like drawing, painting, or playing a musical instrument. Most of us are creative in some way. Think about what you enjoy doing or making, whether it’s cooking up new recipes in the kitchen, quilting, webpage design, or flower arranging. All of these hobbies have a creative component, and all of them can potentially boost our happiness. It’s about finding something that’s meaningful to you and making time to do it.

Even if you’re feeling a little blue, you might be surprised at how doing something creative can lift your spirits and brighten your day.

Connect with friends and family.

While it might be hard to gather with friends or family in-person right now, it’s vital to stay connected with the ones we love. If you don’t already have a video chat app such as Zoom, Google Duo, or Skype, I highly suggest you download one of these programs, sign up for an account, and learn how to use it before the winter comes. 

Having virtual chats with your favorite people can be almost as good as seeing them face-to-face, and you won’t even have to leave home to do it. Another huge upside of these apps is that you can use them to host (or attend) virtual gatherings — so you can see all of your nearest and dearest ones for the holidays without compromising anyone’s safety.

Stay active.

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Physical activity is one of the best stress-busters I know of. Even during some of the hardest times in my life, if I could get myself to work out, it always made a positive difference in how I felt. 

Exercise is extremely effective at reducing anxiety and depression — it releases endorphins, refocuses your mind on something new, and gives you confidence, all of which can give your mood a boost. When you’re in a funk, it can be hard to find the motivation to work out. But staying active can help you blow off steam, clear your mind, and arrive in a clearer, more peaceful headspace. 

And you don’t have to go to the gym to add some movement to your day. With all of the online options available these days, you can easily find online yoga routines, Zumba workouts, and fitness classes to do from the comfort of your own home. 

Create things to look forward to.

Many of us aren’t traveling or going out a lot right now. But if possible, start making plans for fun things you can do in the future — whether it’s this weekend, a few weeks from now, or a couple of months down the road. 

You could set dates to meet up — in-person or virtually — with your friends and family. Or think about the next road trip you’d like to take. Or plan a Netflix night with your sweetie to watch a new movie as soon as it comes out. Pick some things that get you excited about the future so that you can give yourself something to look forward to.

Distraction isn’t always bad.

I’m going to share something with you that my therapist told me once: sometimes, when you’re in a really bad place, one of the best things you can do is distract yourself

I’m generally a huge proponent of mindfulness and delving into difficult feelings to find what’s at the root of them. But if we’re starting to spiral out of control, focusing more on those feelings only magnifies them and makes them worse. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to distract yourself until you’ve calmed down. Turn on some music and sing at the top of your lungs. Watch an outrageous movie, or a few Youtube videos filled with adorable baby animals. If possible, resist the urge to self-medicate, no matter how tempting it may be.

Once you’re back to feeling calm, you could try some meditation or breathwork to gain some clarity on what you’re feeling. But if you’re not there yet, don’t force it.


What about you? What do you do to lift your spirits when you’re feeling down? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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Does wintertime get you down? Learn how to stay happy and well through the cold months and isolating at home. #health #wellness #anxiety #depression #SAD #mentalhealthmatters #winter

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