The winter is upon us. It’s official. So if you’re in a cold climate like I am, you may be feeling the double whammy of the first blasts of cold weather along with the greatly reduced hours of sunlight. If you are in a warmer climate, you are at least feeling the impact of darkness that starts earlier.
Winter can affect us physically and emotionally, and not always in a good way.
First, the physical side. Our bodies may crave carby comfort food while, at the same time, it’s hard to get out and exercise. It’s also all to possible to go to work while it is barely light out and get out of work after the sun has gone down. All that darkness can affect your sleep cycle. Those factors alone can have a negative impact on how we feel physically, which in turn affects our moods: sluggish, out of control, generally bleak to match the weather.
While we’re discussing the physical effects of winter, keep in mind that winter is a time when colds and flu are going around. So your well-being and your mood might sustain an additional blow if you are the unlucky recipient of someone else’s germs.
The Winter Months Can Place a Strain on Your Mental Health
And since I am a mental health professional, I especially want to focus on the ways in which winter can affect us emotionally.
When it’s nasty out, it can just feel a whole lot easier to stay inside. To not make plans. And to cancel out on the plans you made. To basically hunker down and hope it all ends soon. And winter will end, but in the meantime, you risk falling into isolation, which can result in loneliness and contribute to feelings of depression.
Stress can increase during the winter months. One reason is that if you’re not feeling your usual summery upbeat self, you may not be in the position to cope emotionally with the day-to-day challenges and setbacks of life.
If you’re in a cold weather area like I am, winter brings additional uncertainty. Increases in cancellations due to weather, or difficulty in getting to places and events when the weather isn’t quite bad enough to cancel out but still makes for scary travel. Uncertainty means more stress.
We get fewer breaks during the winter. The stretch of time between the holidays and Memorial Day can feel like a long one, broken up only by a 3-day weekend here and there. And unless you want to foot the bill for air travel, you may be feeling stranded.
So… I suspect you don’t need to any more reasons to find the winter months difficult to navigate at times. You most likely have a few reasons of your own. Though, of course, I am not unaware that not everybody would just as soon winter came and went quickly. I know many people who look forward to the winter months.
Whether you like winter, dislike it, or are somewhere in between, you might agree that winter does present a unique set of challenges. All of which require adopting a different frame of mind than the spring and summer months.
Ideally, the best way to cope with winter is by preparing yourself to take care of yourself emotionally during the winter as well as, once winter is underway, maintaining your coping and self-care skills. So my advice, in a word: Winterize! Here’s how:
You Can’t Control the Seasons, But You Can Take Steps Toward Effective Coping
Watch what you eat. I’m not a dietician. But I can personally endorse, as can my clients, the value of a balanced diet, including lots of vegetables and fruit, during the winter months. While also limiting consumption of the foods heavy in carbs, fat, and sugar that our bodies crave at this time of year. Healthy eating can be a real energy booster! And a booster to your self-esteem when you are not feeling your waistline in expansion.
Keep moving. I’m also not an exercise physiologist either. Again, based on my own experience and that of my clients, I can also vouch for the value of staying active during the winter months. Build in exercise where you can. Bundle up, and then park further away from whatever building you are about to enter, so that you get in a few extra steps. Choose activities that keep you moving, like bowling or dancing. If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, join a gym and get regular workouts, including some time on the elliptical or the treadmill. Take a walk, especially when the sun’s out. Better yet, consider taking up a “wintery” activity, like ice-skating or cross-country skiing. Build a snow-person with your kids.
Stay grateful. Gratefulness is a proven way to pick your attitude and help you maintain optimism. Consider starting out the day grateful for something. Is the heat working? There’s a start. Or the sun creeping up before you head into work? Someone in your life who makes you happy? You might find it helpful to maintain a gratefulness journal but recording what you are grateful for each day in a notebook or on your smartphone.
Build in creature comforts. Just little things that help keep you grounded on a dreary day. Like warm coffee in the morning. A healthy snack in the afternoon. A spa treatment or a massage once in awhile. Doing little things to baby yourself can go a long way toward keeping your mood up, and feeling like yourself, during the long winter months.
Pay attention to your stress level. This almost goes without saying, but I thought I would add this to the list. As I discussed earlier on, the impact of the winter can leave you feeling less in control, not quite on you’re a-game, less capable of making good decisions. Consequently, more prone to stress. Do some self-monitoring of your stress level. If you feel like your stress is creeping up on you, then I hope you will pay careful attention to the other ideas in this article.
Don’t isolate. It’s only human to want to stay inside when it’s late afternoon and already pitch black outside or, depending on where you live, freezing cold, windy, snowy. But days when you’re feeling like crawling into your cave are also the days when it would be best for your emotional wellness to get out among people. When you feel the urge to isolate, and the roads are safe for driving, give yourself a push to get out and spend time with people. The presence of other people can be energizing. Sure, the winter months can be an opportunity to contemplate life. But balance is everything.
Have something to look forward to. It’s easy to fall into thinking of the dark winter months as one long interminable slog. You can turn that attitude around by making plans for the winter months. A weekend visiting friends or family. A short trip to go skiing or, better yet, to a warm climate. Or how about planning a get-together for family or friends this Friday night? The point here is that looking forward to something helps you to keep your spirits up, to remind yourself that there is more to life than the limitations the weather or shorter days of sunlight.
Reach out to a friend. Be a good friend. Spend time with friends, or friendly family members. Talk. Share. Laugh. And yes, vent when you need to. Get support. And if you have a friend or family member who just happens to relish the winter months, see if they can share their secret. Or at least include you in their celebrations. If you have a friend or family member who you know is having an especially difficult time coping during the winter months, this would be a time to reach out and lend a listening ear. You might find yourself on their gratefulness list.
Get some sunlight. As you are probably already aware, the sun is an important source of Vitamin D. And it’s sure been my experience, as it has also probable been yours, that getting out in the sun can pick up your mood. Consider taking a short walk at lunch time, especially if you have a day job that is preventing you from seeing much sun except from your office window. Get your walks in even if it requires bundling up. You dog owners have a distinct advantage here. Don’t forget the winter sun can be intense, so wear your sun glasses.
Pick yourself up on down days. Have a toolbox in mind for those days when you are feeling especially down. Activities that make you happy. Work that is especially fulfilling. People you can spend some time with.
Watch for seasonal patterns in your moods. Having a rough time of it this winter? Have you had difficulty in past winters? Does all that darkness get you feeling down? You may have a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which many people suffer from during the winter months when exposure to sunlight is minimal (by the way, some people also experience this in the summer). Winter symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, trouble concentrating, a desire to isolate, among others. If you are concerned you may have SAD, this would be a time to reach out to your physician or a mental health professional. Some people with SAD have benefitted from counseling, medication, and/or light therapy. Along with finding ways to get out in the sun more. If you think you need help, reach out!
The winter months – along with fewer hours of sun – are upon us. This is a time to take especially good care of yourself. Remember: Body, mind, spirit. They all work together.