3 Ways to Manage the Winter Blues
Cincinnatians know all too well what happens every year from November to February; daylight hours become shorter and many days provide little sunshine. This disrupts our natural circadian rhythm and production of the hormones which influence mood, sleep and eating routines. As a result, many people feel “blue”, tired and unmotivated. Studies show that mild “blues” may impact up to 20 percent of people in northern zones but four to six percent of people may have a more severe form of the “blues” that is often called seasonal affective disorder.
The good news is, we turned the corner on December 21 with the shortest day and longest night of the year and we’re now seeing a bit more daylight every day. March 20th, the official beginning of spring, will be here before we know it.
While things usually return to normal in the spring, there are strategies in the mean-time that are helpful in promoting well-being during the winter season.
1. Focus on your values and what is important to you
While “hibernation,” or staying bundled up at home looks inviting when it’s cold and dark, hibernating often separates us from the things we value and that bring us happiness. Maybe you are not exercising as much, or you aren’t spending time with friends, or you and your partner aren’t going on date nights due to lack of energy and motivation.
Consider the following values categories: family, partner, social, work, play/hobbies, spirituality, and health. Take inventory of where they may be lacking and choose one or two activities weekly to fulfill those values. We are much happier living within our values and more likely to do something if it’s on the calendar. You will likely notice a change in your mood after two to three weeks of consciously doing activities that add value and meaning to your life.
Examples of value-based action include:
- Health- exercising for 20 minutes 3 times per week
- Family- watching a movie with my partner
- Spirituality- going to church
- Hobbies- spending 20 minutes at a coffee shop to read a book or magazine
- Diet-making one new healthy meal
2. Mindfulness and staying present in the moment
Mindfulness is an evidenced-based method to treat symptoms of the “blues”. It promotes well-being by reducing the focus on distressing thoughts and feelings and helps to regulate the ups and downs in mood. There are a variety of ways to learn and practice mindfulness including books, websites and phone apps. Many sites have audio to guide you through deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery exercises, many which you can access at no cost. Some favorite apps include Stop, Breathe Think and Insight Timer. There is enough variety for everyone to find something that works for them. Try this helpful breathing exercise during the day or to help promote sleep:
- Diaphragmatic breathing, aka, balloon breathing: Breathe in for 4 seconds, filling your stomach with as much air as possible. Your stomach will expand like a balloon. Hold this expansion for one second. Exhale breathe for four seconds, emptying your stomach as much as possible. Your stomach will deflate like a balloon. Hold this exhale for one second. Do this three to five times to experience the full effects of relaxation.
3. Diet, exercise and mood
Stress and depression can cause inflammation in the body, making the winter “blues” hard to manage. Research has shown the Mediterranean or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets are associated with a positive impact on mood, health and quality of life. These diets incorporate predominantly fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils. You can start to improve your diet by incorporating these foods one to two times per week.
Exercise also has a positive effect on mood. Even if the weather outside is frightful, you can increase your daily activity by adding small amounts of exercise throughout the day. Parking your car farther from the door, taking the steps instead of the elevator or taking short, periodic walks during the day can help you get additional steps in. The mall, for example, is a great place to walk indoors. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise each day. All exercise counts even 10 minutes 3 times per day!
When to Seek Help for the “Blues”
If you are feeling more than a little down, see your primary care physician or behavioral health provider. If you are not feeling better a few weeks after making changes or if you feel like things are getting worse, see your primary care physician. Some people may benefit from vitamin supplements, light therapy or antidepressant medications. Others may find benefit in seeing a behavioral health provider.