Short days, grey skies and the long nights of winter can push even the sunniest souls among us to the breaking point. Add cold, snow and a global pandemic to the mix and moods can get, well, a little grim. The winter blues can rear its ugly head as moodiness, lethargy, carb-cravings or outright depression. Small wonder so many of us feel like they have to brace themselves for the seasonal onslaught, never more so than during these most unusual pandemic times. But it is possible to beat back the metaphorical darkness, by implementing a few sanity-saving strategies – stat.
Here are a few thoughts to point you in an upbeat direction and get you on an even keel as we wait for sunnier days ahead:
Movement is medicine – and now’s the time to up your dose.
Study after study has shown that exercise is at least as good at managing milder forms of depression as the commonly prescribed (and over-prescribed) anti-depressants, so, this winter, keep moving! With so many not clocking into traditional offices these days, taking a morning walk, a mid-day run, or lunchtime bike-ride is more feasible than ever – solo or with family members. With households more cooped up than usual, stepping outside for a brief change of scenery is a major plus for everyone’s mental health. On a physical level, outdoor exercise boosts serotonin levels, which helps maintain feelings of well-being as well as regulating hunger which can go a bit haywire in winter. Another reason to get out there? Working out in the cold helps the body burn more energy (assuming you’re not overdressed). Working overtime to maintain your core temperature means boosting fat loss without lots of extra effort.
Food is medicine too – if you play your cards right.
In winter, it’s not unusual to gravitate towards carb-packed ‘comfort foods’ and sugary treats. And while yes, all those carbs do fuel serotonin production (to an extent), a steady diet of the stuff will weaken immunity by fueling the growth of unhealthy bacteria in your gut. Not what you want to be doing in the middle of a pandemic! That imbalance in your gut will also bring mood down so: think good fats, plants and proteins from healthy sources; show sugar, processed junk and carbs the door; and commit to eating in ways that support the strongest immunity and best mood possible, all winter long.
Sleep more than usual.
Ever notice how your mood tanks when you’re under-slept? If you’re dealing with the blues, make sure you get good, restorative sleep, and shoot for 7 to 8 hours a night to give your body the time it needs to fully rest, repair and refresh for tomorrow. When you know you’re coming up short, take a brief mid-morning or early afternoon power-nap – no more than 30 minutes – and before 4 pm to prevent it from interfering with your nighttime sleep routine.
Amp up energy – instantly.
Reaching for the coffee pot again? Hit the floor instead, and spend a few minutes in a classic Reclining Open Chest Pose. It’s a great go-to tool to help quickly combat seasonal energy drain or mid-day slumps. Try it before your next Zoom meeting to amp yourself up, or as a do-anytime, self-care moment to stretch out, relax and support emotional resilience while cooped up at home. Another instant energizer? Try a shake break, as in, shake each limb, one at a time, for 10-to-20 seconds to get energy and blood flowing again.
Energize with as much real sunlight as you can.
Another positive aspect to staying close to home this winter is that home-based former office workers will have easier access to wintertime sunshine, versus missing it almost completely as in winters past. Getting a daily dose, particularly of morning sunlight, will help you tune into your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle, stimulating the production of the mood-lifting, feel-good brain chemical, serotonin – so make it your business to seek out a few minutes of sunlight every day in winter. When you give your sun-deprived body ‘sips’ of sunlight, it helps regulate your circadian rhythms, making it easier to fall asleep at night and rise at a normal hour in the morning, avoiding the winter over-sleeping trap. Even just 10 or 15 minutes of sun at a time, a few times a day, will help. For example, try:
- Taking your morning coffee or tea outside in the sunshine (even if you have to bundle up).
- Before those morning Zoom calls kick-off, start your day with a quick walk to a local shop to pick up a necessity or two, walk the dog, or sweep snow off the front steps – in other words, get out there!
- Parking yourself in a sunlit corner of your home office, open the window – and face the sun for a few minutes while catching up on calls or paperwork.
- Grabbing your laptop and work outside in the sunshine, and, assuming your colleagues don’t mind, take your Zoom calls while sitting outside in a quiet spot.
- Taking your lunch-breaks and coffee-breaks outside to grab a quick sunbathing session while you eat.
Wake up easily – minus the screeching alarm.
Not much of a (wintertime) morning person? You’re not alone. If you find it tough to get out of bed in the dark, make your morning bright – no matter the weather – with a ‘dawn simulator.’ Instead of shocking yourself out of bed with a screeching alarm, dawn simulators — also known as sunrise alarm clocks — mimic the slowly building light of sunrise, helping to ease body and brain into waking up more naturally, with less grogginess – and we’re all for that.
Lift mood with light therapy.
If you struggle with low or moderate level Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) each winter, you should consider adding a daily dose of simulated sunshine via a light therapy ‘box’ to help take the edge off. For a more severe case of SAD, check in with your doc to develop a more comprehensive plan – one that’s likely to also include a medical-grade light therapy lamp in addition to other supportive protocols.
Brighten your working hours.
One simple DIY way to help lift flagging energy is with full spectrum light bulbs. Though they’re not a replacement for sunlight, full spectrums can help you feel more alert, particularly when Mother Nature delivers an extended run of overcast days. If you’re working from home and feeling lethargic during the 9-to-5, adding full spectrum light bulbs in your office space is an easy, caffeine-free way to perk up despite those all-too-early 4 pm sunsets. However, be sure to keep full spectrum bulbs – as well as traditional fluorescents – out of the bedroom to minimize sleep/wake cycle disruption.
Get on the wagon.
If you’re fighting the winter blues, trust me, you’re not going to drink them away – they’ll still be there in the morning and you’ll probably feel crappy to boot. Trouble is, alcohol use (and over-use) tends to amplify the winter blues, messing with mood, sleep patterns, blood sugar, immunity and overall resilience, so the wisest path is to skip the stuff and avoid sending yourself down a physical and emotional hole.
Train your brain to look on the bright side.
The winter blues are real but one startlingly simple way to triumph over them may be as simple as changing your attitude about winter. Embracing it rather than bracing for it – with plans to do interesting things or try new cold weather sports or whatever it takes – can be an important key to loosening the gloom grip. In fact, one cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) study found that mentally shifting one’s attitudes about winter toward the positive was, in the short term, as helpful as light box therapy, and, over the course of two years, more helpful in reducing the severity and recurrence of depressive symptoms. Also, remind yourself that the seasonal darkness is actually fleeting. Once we pass the winter solstice on December 21, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere start gaining an average of one to two minutes of daylight per day. By the end of January, we’ve racked up close to an hour of daylight, and it’s nothing but up from there!
Connect and socialize safely.
If nothing else, 2020 has taught us all a lot about the mood-elevating importance of staying connected, in spite of the physical hurdles. Though in-person or face-to-face get-togethers with people outside your household or your “pod” is off the table for now, making time for regular virtual socializing with family and friends, be it with FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc., can help you stay engaged. Though virtual may not be ideal, laughing with others over the wires can help ease both the physical and emotional aspects of the blues, reducing blood pressure and stress levels, while also releasing feel-good endorphins to boot. Got older or low-tech folks in your crew? Lift their spirits (as well as your own) with an old-school phone call, and think of a few questions you’d like to ask, like what life was like when they were growing up, your family history, etc. You’ll be surprised what you might learn!
Seriously, it’s time to plan a trip.
Though most of us have to stick close to home these days, it’s still possible to connect with the mood-elevating benefits of travel – simply by planning a trip. Odd as it may seem, researchers in the Netherlands found that the mere anticipation of travel is enough to help boost good feelings for several weeks at a time. So, even if you have to wait until it’s less risky to travel, the mental exercise of planning is worth the effort.
Make supplements part of your blues-fighting plan.
Eating healthy wholesome foods is a great way to help keep the blues at bay, but in winter, it’s never a bad idea to add a few supplements for extra support. Among my favorite blues-busters:
- Vitamin D: Most people in the northern hemisphere – even those without the blues – don’t get enough vitamin D. There’s growing evidence to suggest a link between SAD and low vitamin D levels, so I encourage patients to take at least 2,000 to 5,000 IU/day through the winter to keep brain chemistry, especially neurotransmitter action, humming.
- Omega 3s play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, and are thought to elevate mood and decrease depression, so keep them on your radar – and your plate – in winter.
- Melatonin: 1-2mg of melatonin at bedtime can be helpful in relieving symptoms in some SAD sufferers (think of it for occasional use only, not every night or more than a few nights in a row).
- 5-HTPis the precursor in the biosynthesis of mood-boosting serotonin, so I often recommend 200-400mg at bedtime.
- Magnesium: Low levels of magnesium can compound SAD symptoms by inhibiting the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP, which can decrease the production of mood-stabilizing serotonin and melatonin. 400-600mg of magnesium glycinate taken at bedtime is well tolerated by most people.
How else to keep winter blues at bay? Turn down the noise in your life, and offload the stuff that deflates your mood, be it social media, the nightly news, etc. Instead, direct your energy towards that which uplifts, inspires and/or invigorates you. And finally, take a page from the Scandinavian wintertime playbook and cultivate “hygge,” that feeling of warmth and coziness.