I think it has snowed in all 50 states this winter. Don’t quote me on that, because I didn’t actually research it, but I do know for a fact, that this winter has been particularly brutal, everywhere. It’s nearly the end of February, so I’m dreaming of flowers blooming, fresh cut grass, and sunny skies. But the weatherman claims that we still have several inches of snow and possibly ice headed our way, today. I think even the cold weather lovers are over it this year.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, so at some point during my college days I learned about Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD). If you don’t know, SAD is a type of depression that strikes during the cold, never-ending, sunless days of winter. I was so intrigued by this disorder because I absolutely hate winter, I hate cold, I hate when we don’t see the sun for days on end, I hate driving in snow, and I hate boots, gloves, hats, coats, and scarfs. I don’t like feeling like a football player just to go outside and get the mail. So when I found out that there is an actual disorder that might explain why I get crabby and emotional and want to sleep all the time during the winter months, I immediately self-diagnosed myself with SAD. In reality, I don’t think my symptoms are extreme enough to actually merit a true diagnosis, but I do know that I suffer from the less intense “winter blues” every single year. And I know that I am not alone, especially this year.
I start getting anxious during the fall, the days start getting shorter and we have to start adding on the layers of clothes. But then the Holidays come and that’s usually enough to perk me up and keep me distracted and happy. The happiness continues through at least part of January and then, I’m just over it. I complain about the weather which turns into complaining about everything else I can think to complain about. I stop even looking outside because I’m sick of seeing snow and ice everyday. I start wearing the same few sweaters and hoodies because they’re the warmest things I own and warmth is my only concern anymore. I snuggle under blankets and crank up my heated mattress pad trying to get warm and end up accomplishing nothing, but hey, at least I’m finally warm! I fix super unhealthy comfort foods for dinner. We bake and eat extra batches of cookies because the oven heat helps warm up the house. I get cranky and angry and frustrated over all sorts of things. I long for the days of sunshine. I long for a breath of Spring air. I dream of taking my kids to the park and going on a run without wearing 17 layers of clothes.
Someday, this winter will end and we will all take a collective sigh of relief, don our long lost flip flops and shorts and head outside. For today, we brace ourselves for yet another winter storm and search for ways to find some relief for our winter blues. Here’s a few of my tried and true blues cures.
1. Make good food choices.
There is nothing wrong with doing some extra cooking and baking during the winter months. The heat from the oven does help keep the house warm, the extra time in the kitchen and around the table helps us reconnect as a family, and we don’t have to go outside to brave the elements. However, sometimes when we think of comfort food, our recipes involve lots of cans and boxes…cans of “cream of crap” soup, boxes of potato flakes, cans of gravy, boxes of processed cheese product, bags of frozen already made anything, bottles of sauces and creams. These can all be whipped into fabulous tasting meals that warm our hearts and help us forget about the blizzard outside. Unfortunately, all of these things lead to zapped energy, sluggish mental focus, and some hefty nutritional deficits.
Fruits and vegetables are just as important to include in your diet during the winter as they are in the summer. Some days, it feels like they are more important to keep us energized and going strong through the cold and snow, but it is hard to find good, fresh produce in the winter. Take this as an opportunity to try new recipes with winter season and year round produce items, things like apples, kale and salad greens, winter squashes, and root vegetables. You can also make some really great food with frozen fruits and vegetables. Another great idea is to challenge yourself to find healthier substitutes for some of the processed ingredients in your favorite recipes – like this one to replace those “cream of crap” soups. Comfort food doesn’t have to be unhealthy, so get in the kitchen and get cooking.
2. Turn on the lights.
One of the most common treatments for true Seasonal Affective Disorder is light therapy. They make light therapy boxes that give off ultra bright light that mimics that of the sun. In my younger, less informed years, I visited the tanning bed on a regular basis during the winter, not to get tan, but to help me feel better (and warmer). I’m not going to recommend that to you with the whole cancer risk problem, but turning on the lights can make a huge difference on your mood and energy levels. Our indoor, modern lights are not very similar to the natural light outside, but any light can help. While it feels nice and cozy (and romantic) to sit in the dark by the fire or with candles all around in the late evening, make sure that you also fill a large part of your day with lights. Open up the curtains, turn on all the overhead lights and let your body know that it is daytime. This is especially important in the mornings when you are struggling to wake up and get moving. Our bodies were designed to function in light and rest in darkness, make sure your body knows that its light, even if the sun decides to hide behind the clouds.
3. Get some Vitamin D.
This is different from number two in that light itself, doesn’t necessarily mean Vitamin D. There are two ways to get Vitamin D – sunshine or supplements. The sunshine option requires that you expose a good portion of your bare skin (no clothing, windows, or sunscreen) to sunlight for a while (at least 15 minutes, depending on the amount of skin exposed and the darkness/lightness of your skin). This is the preferred method. On those rare, sunny winter days, take advantage and head out for a nice long walk. Obviously you’ll need to have enough clothing to brave the cold, but if you can go without a hat, gloves, and scarf, you’ll be able to absorb more sunshine and raise those Vitamin D levels.
Supplementation is a much easier option during the winter months. Vitamin D supplements come in a variety of ways including soft-gels and drops. Drops are my preferred method as putting a drop or two in my glass of milk at dinner is more pleasant than swallowing pills. You can find Vitamin D supplements in many stores with Vitamin/supplement sections as well as online, like here: Daily D3 2000IU Supplement.
Vitamin D is important for a whole host of health reasons and at least one fourth of the population is Vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to both mild and major depression and seems to play a role in our moods as described here. Research is still needed to work out all the details between the link between Vitamin D and mental health, but there has already been a number of research studies which have shown that Vitamin D supplementation has improved depression symptoms in many patients. Again, the preferred method is time out in the sun, but until the sun returns this Spring, I’ll be adding a few drops to my daily routine to keep the blues away.
4. Start a project.
If you keep yourself busy, you can distract yourself from the cold and misery going on outdoors. There is no need to wait until Spring to “spring clean” your house. Wouldn’t it be awesome if Spring came and you weren’t stuck indoors cleaning? Clean out the basement, sort through the kid’s clothes, organize the pantry, and clear out the dust and cobwebs in all the nooks and crannies. Or, if you aren’t up for cleaning, find something else to do. You could paint your walls a new color, work on that home repair project you’ve been avoiding, or work on crafts. One of my favorite winters was the year that I spent tons of time crocheting. I made hats and scarves and toys for my daughter, I was up for trying anything new. It’s a little difficult to do that this year since I have a toddler around that would prefer running around tangling up my yarn, but creating something with your hands is a great way to boost your mood. The sense of accomplishment and pride is sure to knock the blues away for a while.
5. Give and serve.
As annoying as it is to gear up with hats, gloves, scarves, and linebacker thick coats, it is a blessing to actually have those things in this weather. There are many people who don’t have warm clothes, warm homes, or warm meals. I don’t know about you but every time I have participated in a service project or given away my money or stuff, I have felt amazingly good. The initial reluctance of giving up your time or your stuff is hard to get through, but once you do, it can be highly therapeutic. Seeing the appreciative smiles on the faces of those you have helped, hearing stories of gratitude and excitement from those who have received something unexpected is a huge blessing. When you’re feeling a little low, find something to do for someone else. It can be as simple as paying for the person behind you at the fast food restaurant, swiping your card to pay for the gas for the guy at the next pump or something more complex like serving in a soup kitchen or volunteering at a shelter or hospital.
Give and you shall receive….sometimes the only thing we really need to receive is a little boost of happiness.
I know, who wants to exercise when you have to fight the cold to get out the door. Outdoor exercise becomes cumbersome or even impossible and going to the gym when it’s cold out takes so much extra work (and layers). We could have a contest to see who could come up with the most excuses to not exercise during the winter months, but it wouldn’t really help anyone.
The reality is, the more you exercise, the better you feel. Plain and simple. End of story. Sometimes we have to face the fact that self-discipline is a requirement in life. I have never, ever regretted a workout, but I’ve regretted many days in which I didn’t work out. Lace up those sneakers and get moving. If you don’t like going to the gym in the winter, buy some free weights or exercise videos and stay home. If you really like working out outside, then put on some layers and get out the door. If the gym closes because of the snow then put on some music, turn on the google machine to find some bodyweight workouts (push ups, squats, plank, etc) and get busy. You will always feel better after a workout. Promise.
7. Fake your brain.
Love the smell of fresh cut flowers? Go buy a big, fragrant bouquet and set it next to you while you work. Do you miss wearing fun clothes and cute skirts? Find your brightest, funnest clothes and figure out how to wear them. Pair your favorite summer tops with a cute jacket or sweater. Throw on some nylons and wear a skirt for a change. Bright colors make people happy, there is no reason to save your bright colors for Spring and Summer only. Do you love Summer because of all the delicious fresh produce? Buy the best fruit you can find in your produce section and make a big giant fruit salad. Create a summer-y green salad bar for dinner one night. Just because you might crave comfort food in the winter, doesn’t mean you have to eat it. Make summertime foods, grill in the snow, and sip on some fresh squeezed lemonade. Little reminders of better days can convince our brains that better days are here, today.
8. Embrace the cold.
Watching the winter Olympics has really made me wish that I enjoyed winter sports a little more. Who can watch figure skating and not want to go ice skating? And although much of the skiing and snow-boarding looks a little terrifying to me, I know that I would probably have a blast on the bunny hill. Those skeleton races look deadly to me, but they remind me that sledding at the local park or neighborhood hill is a whole lot of fun. So often I spend the winter hibernating and avoid any “playing in the snow” activities because its just too cold for all of that nonsense. But snow play can actually be a lot of fun. I think as adults we spend so much time shoveling and snow blowing and clearing off our cars that we’ve forgotten that snow doesn’t have to be miserable. Bundle up those kids, bundle up yourself and go play. What’s good for my kids, is actually good for me too!
And in the end, I leave you with this promise. Spring will come and Summer will follow. We’re getting closer. Hang in there and we’ll all celebrate warmer, sunnier days soon.