Five Ways to Beat the Winter Blues
This is the time of year that many of us start feeling down, as the days turn gray and the long nights leave us missing the sun. Instead of suffering another year with the winter blues, and trying to find relief through caffeine, sugar, and comfort foods, let’s make a promise to take better care of ourselves. These five ways to beat the winter blues won’t magically make you happy, but they will help you enjoy better health and a better mood this winter.
The cold rain falls slowly, as though uncertain of its path. Almost snow, but not quite, it clings to the branches in fat droplets, as if hoping for one last chance to freeze before finally touching the earth. The power is out, and without the usual electronic inputs, the house is exceptionally quiet. I just finished making bean and bacon soup, tossing in the last of the kale. A batch of apple pie filling went into the freezer, ready for baking another day. The candles are lit, and the house has a cozy feel to it.
These are the moments I crave. The mindful and purposeful work of home, the tangible results, create a deep contentment that wraps itself around me like a favorite and comforting blanket. There is nothing that centers me like being home.
But winter is a bittersweet time. The weather means more time focused inside, but the days are short and my energy is low. How can I avoid the temptation of over-eating, and too little physical activity?
Seasonal Affective Disorder
The winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder, is common for those who live with a winter season. Sometimes mild, it can become debilitating
It seems each year, despite my best efforts, I feel the winter blues settling over me. Although I believe in the benefits of slowing down, especially after the holidays, feeling sad and melancholy affects not only me but my relationships as well. My family depends on me, and when I am am not doing well, everyone seems to suffer.
Does this happen to you?
Last year I focused on the small things to keep myself happy and healthy during the cold, gray days of winter. I believe being mindful of our inner thoughts and feelings, and having a plan can make a big difference.
This year, instead of turning to mindless distractions, bingeing on comfort foods, caffeine, and other less healthy ways to pass the winter season, let’s focus on the simple things we can do every day to take care of ourselves. And let’s start now.
5 Simple Ways to Take Care of Ourselves and Beat the Winter Blues
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My husband gets annoyed with me in the winter months, as I go around the house early mornings, turning on lights and opening the blinds to let every drop of light in. But the older I get, the more I notice the powerful effect light has on my mood.
Such a simple thing we take for granted. Sunlight, passing through clouds, sometimes makes us stop and pause. Without even knowing it, light exerts its influence on us.
Being aware of the amount and quality of light in our homes is a simple way to make a huge impact on our mood and energy level. The effect of light is a physical thing – light affects our biorhythms and body chemistry, and can not only affect our energy and mood, but the quality of our sleep as well.
Using quality broad-spectrum bulbs in the rooms where we typically spend a lot of time in the winter can lighten our mood. A simple string of twinkle lights adds a certain festive feeling, long after the holidays have passed. Candles cast a comforting glow on dreary winter days. And research demonstrates using broad-spectrum lights with timed exposure has helped many people with seasonal affective disorder and depression.
More information on light therapy for depression
and Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- Mayo Clinic – Seasonal Affective Disorder and Light Box Therapy
- Harvard Health Publications – Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Live Science – Bright Light Therapy Can Ease Depression Symptoms
We are all familiar with the power music has to transport us to different place and time, as we listen to our favorite tunes from the past. The right music can change our mood in an instant. Why not make a plan to take advantage of your favorite music to help you feel better?
I really struggle with getting out of bed and feeling hopeful for the coming day when I have to rise early on dark mornings. Having my favorite music close by the bed helps me plug in and get going first thing, often setting the mood for the rest of the day. It can be helpful to create a playlist of your favorite happy songs to rely on when you need a quick boost.
Every winter it seems my stomach has a mind of its own. Cravings for high-fat and high-carb snacks and meals take over. When I’m feeling tired, or down, I cannot muster the energy or discipline to make healthy food choices. The more I give in, the worse I feel.
The food choices we make can have profound effects on our mood. When we indulge too much in high-fat, high-sugar foods, or consume too much caffeine and alcohol, not only do we suffer with the negative physical effects, we too often feel we are letting ourselves down. Over time, this can be exhausting. There are some simple strategies we can use to eat well consistently and avoid the winter blues and the unfortunate weight gain that often goes with it.
- Eat small frequent meals. When our mood and energy levels are down, we have less motivation and self-discipline to draw upon. If we can eat small, frequent meals/snacks, we can keep our overall energy level up and avoid those “I’m starving, I have to eat something now!” moments.
- Include healthy proteins with our meals/snacks. Adding protein can give us a longer sense of satiety and avoid the sugar highs and lows that come from high-carbohydrate eating. Carbohydrates alone are digested more quickly, leading to a sudden rise in insulin, followed by a quick drop. Even complex carbohydrates can produce this affect. Adding healthy proteins like a handful of nuts, two tablespoons of nut butter, sunflower seeds, cheese, cottage cheese, and other protein sources can help us avoid the roller-coaster of carbohydrate foods. All of these nuts and seeds provide healthy fats which give us sustained energy levels and studies suggest support a better mood. Keep the portions in check though – mindless eating through a bag of nuts or sunflower seeds can mean too many calories. Here is a delicious recipe for healthy, herbal-infused energy balls using nut butters, honey, and chocolate – Women of Power Balls, Herbal Health Treats.
- Nourishing Herbs. There are many herbs that offer nutrition and are safe to use daily. The herbs I suggest are nourishing and mood-lifting and can help us stay healthy and happy during the challenging winter months.
You can learn more about the 4 herbs I use to relieve depression and anxiety – 4 Herbal Remedies for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression.
When you’re feeling sad and depressed and eating too much and all you really want to do is enjoy a Netflix binge, the idea of physical activity can be pretty awful. Too often I end up arguing with myself, and it might sound something like this:
Pro-exercise voice says, “Come on Michelle, you know you need to get some exercise. Just go for a short walk, you will feel so much better!”
No-exercise voices says (in a whiny tone), “Ugh. It’s cold, and damp. I’ll have to put on something warmer first, which means going ALL THE WAY UPSTAIRS to the bedroom. We can walk later, or even better, tomorrow.”
Pro-exercise voice replies, “Oh no, you need to walk TODAY and TOMORROW. You haven’t done anything all week, and you are getting stiff and lazy. Besides, if you don’t stop eating those chips and get walking, you are going to have to go shopping for bigger clothes.”
No-exercise voice responds with a loud sigh, “Alright, alright. We’ll go, but just for a short walk.”
Once we get out the door, the crisp breeze invigorates us, and the blood flowing helps our brain function and the happy endorphins kick in and we tell ourselves what a great thing it is to be out here walking.
Unfortunately, the pro-walking voice doesn’t always win the argument. How can we support ourselves and stay active when we feel down? Here are some ways I keep myself active:
- Keep my exercise clothes ready to go. I have running shoes, an ipod, and the clothes I need for the current weather, set out the night before (I typically exercise in the morning.) The less reasons I have to talk myself out of it, the easier it is to get going.
- Create an exercise playlist of songs that really make me feel like moving. Sometimes all I need to do is plug-in for a few minutes and I am ready to go.
- Set a schedule. I know that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are my designated exercise days. It’s good knowing that if I get my exercise on Monday, I won’t have to fight with myself on Tuesday, etc.
Being physically active when it is cold and dark outside is a huge challenge (heck, it can be challenging enough when the weather is nice!) But physical activity offers so many benefits, and can make a world of difference in our energy levels, our mood, and even our self-esteem.
Outside, walking along the river trails, I hear the sound of the wind swishing through the bare branches above. Fallen leaves crackle underfoot. Everywhere are muted blues and charcoal grays. Empty trees stretch to the overcast sky, the white bark of the many sycamores blending with the even darker sky.
We can forget how beautiful these gray days are. We can be so preoccupied with resisting the discomforts of the current season, we miss the beauty and grace of it.
Being in nature, even in the cold and wet is the best remedy I have found. It takes discipline, and some strong self-encouragement to get myself bundled up and out the door. But I never regret it. Moving is essential – staying still in one place too long lets the cold seep in.
This year I am trying hard to take care of myself and avoid slipping into the winter depression I so often experience. Exercise and time outside are essential. And fighting the urge to over-consume high calorie comfort foods is always a challenge.
But even as I try to avoid sinking into a deep winter melancholy, I am also learning to accept things as they are. I will have less energy and enthusiasm, and I will feel more withdrawn. And that is OK and a natural part of the cycle of the seasons. Acceptance and non-judgement allows us freedom. Freedom to accept the current situation as it is without labeling it “good” or “bad”, or trying to change it. So much of our struggle comes from resisting. But many things in life can be like the weather – we have no control over it and it just is.
I hope you find the right balance between slowing down and caring for yourself. Balance between doing what is hard and doing what feels easy. And that you enjoy a peaceful and contented winter season.
If you want to eat healthy, stay active, have fun, and avoid gaining weight this winter, check out my post on five great apps to help you track your meals, log your exercise, keep you motivated, and get you through the winter months at home. The apps are easy to use, free, and a fun way to stay healthy! Read more here…