Winter, love it or hate it-it’s upon us. Now, that Christmas is over and we’re packing up the pretty lights and putting away the tree, the winter blues may be setting in. Months of cold and blah ahead of us can feel daunting. I struggled with Winter for years. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real thing. For many who already suffer from depression or anxiety, Winter can be especially taxing on mental health. Last year, my New Year’s resolution was literally to learn to like Winter (or at least not hate it so much). So, I’d like to share my tips (and also remind myself) about what helped me thrive last Winter.
Let the Sun Shine In
The winters here in Appalachia are dark. Not only are the days shorter but, in a deeply forested mountainous area, we are literally in the shadow of a mountain and under a canopy of trees most of the time. It’s dark here most of the time. We go to work in the dark, and we come home in the dark. It’s dark when we wake up. It’s dark when we eat dinner. All this darkness is hard on circadian rhythms and our moods. So, for about $30, I purchased a light therapy lamp. I put the gadget on the windowsill next to my bed and it’s set with an alarm. About 15 minutes before I want to wake up it starts to slowly cast a soft glow. The light increases over the next quarter hour until it is nice and bright, simulating sunshine coming into my bedroom window. It signals my brain that it’s time to rise and shine. It’s a lot easier to get up with sunshine than to roll out of bed in the dark, even if that sunshine is electronic.
A Quick Chemistry Lesson
Tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that acts as a neurotransmitter. In other words, it’s a “messenger” chemical that relays information from one part of the brain to another. It affects mood, sexual desire, sleep function, and memory. Researchers believe that there is a strong correlation between serotonin levels and depression, anxiety, and OCD. Vitamin B6 helps convert tryptophan to serotonin.
So, what does this mean? In a nutshell- serotonin is important. So how do you get it?
Fill Your Diet with Mood Boosting Foods
Foods high in vitamin B6 include all types of fish, round steak, and grilled chicken. Not a meat eater? Include baked potatoes, dried pasilla and ancho peppers, avocado, shitake mushrooms, and bananas in your diet. But, here’s the catch, in order for these foods to convert properly into the right chemicals, you need to eat them with a carb. So, think avocado toast, or a little rice with your fish.
Sunshine is extremely important to our health and research has shown that time in nature can be very mood boosting. There’s even a name for it- forest therapy. So, even if you aren’t into hiking and camping, you can still benefit just by dragging yourself outside everyday for 15-20 minutes.
Whether you exercise or not. You know you should. It’s not just for physical health, it’s vital for mental health as well. Aerobic exercise is a known way to boost serotonin. Dancing, swimming, biking, even just brisk walking are great choices. Double up your efforts by exercising outside.
That Stuff is Hard. Can’t I do Something Fun?
Yep! Endorphins are neurotransmitters that impact pain relief and pleasure. That old saying, “laughter is the best medicine” actually holds truth. Endorphins are released when you laugh. So, turn on a comedy podcast on your commute or chill out with a funny movie tonight. Other activities that can flood your system with endorphins include listening to music, aromatherapy, massage, acupuncture, sex, and meditation. Creating or just appreciating other people’s art is shown to be helpful too. Surprisingly, eating dark chocolate or spicy foods can also release endorphins.
Emerge from Your Cave of Isolation
While it is easier to isolate yourself when you are depressed, having social interactions is very important to your mental health. So, making plans to meet up with friends (and actually going) or even just calling someone for a quick chat can help. Volunteering for a cause you care about is a great way to feel great yourself. Charitable work boosts all the “feel good” chemicals in your brain. So, it’s a win-win. Go cuddle animals at the Humane Society or help out at a Habitat for Humanity house. Simple things like handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the homeless or checking in on your elderly neighbor can help you as much as it helps them.
Now, the following tips are just things that help me. I don’t have any scientific data to back it up. So, feel free to start scrolling here. But, they are meaningful to me. So, they may be worth considering.
I like to wear color more in the winter. Everything is so drab and blah outside. Most winters I buy myself a new colorful sweater. My favorite is yellow. I like to wear cheerful colors and my “fun” jewelry in the Winter. Dangly earrings, colorful beads, or a quirky broach feel like special occasion jewelry to me. So, wearing them on a random Tuesday just feels good.
Speaking of which, break out Grandma’s good china for your pizza night or Kraft Mac n Cheese. Open that bottle of wine you’ve been saving. Celebrate not having to stop at any red lights on the way from work. The point I’m trying to make is treat everyday like a special occasion. Spritz on your good perfume before picking your kids up from soccer practice. Get the good coffee this week at the store. Drink it from your favorite mug and sit down and savor that first sip before rushing to the next thing on your to-do list. Life itself is reason to celebrate. I don’t want to feel like everyday is on autopilot and I’m just going through the motions. I’m not interested in just existing. I’m interested in living. That’s why I made it a point to learn to like Winter. I don’t want to spend three months every year wishing my life away.
Make winter feel cozy. If you love Pinterest as much as me, I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of hyyge. It is a core part of Danish culture that focuses on contentment and wellness through cozy practices in daily life. Savoring soup by candlelight instead of perched in front of the T.V. is practicing hygge. Or, walking through the snow in the moonlight while wrapped up in a big fluffy sweater and your favorite scarf would be a good example. Snuggling with your dog while sipping hot tea and reading a good book-that’s hygge. Slow down, savor, and allow yourself to be present instead of busy. Enjoy a nap. Cuddle with your kids. Just take in those moments of daily pleasure without distractions.
Connect with the Divine. I believe in having a pure genuine relationship with my Creator through the Holy Spirit (some people call that Christianity.) I put as much emphasis on my spiritual health as an I do on my physical health. I feel well when I feel connected to God. For me, that means daily scripture reading, prayer, and connecting regularly with other believers. These are the things that “put gas in my spiritual tank.” Spiritual health is important to overall health. So, without getting on a soapbox or giving you a pamphlet about fire and brimstone (because that’s definitely not my thing), let me just say that there is so much more to this life than what we can see with our eyes. So, I encourage you to explore that yourself. My spiritual walk gives me peace, hope, and joy. Those are things that everyone can benefit from.
For those interested in reading more about amino acids and the other chemicals that make us feel good, check out these sources that I used to write this post:
Also, if you feel hopeless, please please reach out for help. Call your doctor. Mental health issues are not a sign of weakness. You can’t always just “snap out of it” or “toughen up.” Sometimes vitamin deficiencies and chemical or hormonal imbalances can wreck us. Don’t try to be superhuman. I personally take medication. It has transformed my quality of life. Millions of people benefit from talking things through with a professional. So, if you need help with physical health, consider consulting a personal trainer or nutritionist. If you need guidance for mental health, consult a therapist or just start by making an appointment with your general practitioner.