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5 Ways To Shore Up Your Mental Wellness for Winter

Nov. 16, 2020Less light, shorter and colder days, and more Covid-restrictions — here are a few ways to help keep you healthy anyway.



Ah, winter! It’s freezing and you get about five hours of sunlight each day, unless you live in one of many places where the sun simply doesn’t come out until spring. In all seriousness, that is the real explanation for the increased sluggishness you may be feeling right about now. It’s not just you—it’s the jet lag feeling of ending daylight savings time, on top of what could be some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood change that comes along with the darker and colder days of winter. And you may not be surprised to find that this winter feels tougher than usual, with the monotony and stress of a pandemic throwing us even further off any sense of normality. Here are some ways to adjust to avoid some of those winter blahs in the coming months. (And, of course, please seek professional help if your winter blues feel like something more severe, like depression.)

#1 — Soak Up the Daylight Hours

The bad news: the end of daylight savings time means that it’s likely getting dark around 5:30 or even earlier, depending on where you live. (Sorry, Seattlites!) The good news: early birds no longer have to wake up in the dark. If that’s not you, sorry to say that rising with the sun (around 6:30) could make a huge difference in your mood right about now. The main reason is that it works with your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates when you’re asleep and awake, and leads your body to expect light during waking hours and dark during resting hours. Studies have shown that more exposure to light first thing in the morning helps you both wake up more easily and sleep better at night. On the same token, it won’t do you any favors to fight sleepiness now that bedtime is pushed back an hour—if you feel tired earlier than usual, just go with it. 

 

#2 — Keep Exercising

Hey, while you’re awake so early, consider getting a workout in during the morning too! Aside from the well-documented benefits of exercise on mood, sleep, and energy (the very things that suffer during the winter), studies have shown that exercising in bright light is likely better than exercising in dark lighting for SAD. Of course, it’s most important to fit in exercise at all, so even if you don’t have a ton of time for your full workout in the morning, a quick 20-minute stroll could be enough to get the day off to the right start.

#3 — Supplement Your Winter Light

Not only are daylight hours shorter in the winter, the weather is often gloomier, and you may find your energy flagging more than usual because of the decreased intensity of light. Bright lamps have been found to be helpful for people actively suffering from SAD in some cases (as opposed to as a preventative treatment). So if you have been noticing changes in your energy and mood, it could be worth investing in a light therapy lamp; those that have been approved as medical-grade tend to run $100 and above. 

 

#4 — Stick to a Schedule

If you haven’t traveled in almost a year but feel a lot like how you do when you step off a plane in a different time zone these days, you’re not imagining things. The end of daylight savings is a form of jet lag, shifting the timing or not just your waking hours but your meals, workday, and exercise time. If your dog is confused about why his kibble is being served an hour late, well, your body may be feeling that too. This general internal confusion can go hand in hand with classic mood suppressors, like not eating when you’re hungry, not drinking enough water, and not sleeping properly. Writing out a consistent schedule—down to things as simple as meals and snacks, bedtime, showering, walking the dog—could help you maintain a baseline of wellness that’s critical during this changing of the seasons. At the very least, hanger won’t be the cause of your grumpiness.

#5 — Force Yourself to Do Nice Things

Some of the advice for avoiding the winter blues may read kind of like a cruel joke now: get outside! Lower stress! Socialize! These are all things that are not advisable or nearly impossible to do while controlling a highly contagious airborne virus. But they all point to a very human need for novelty and community. Take it from astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent almost a year “indoors” on the International Space Station: “When you are confined in a small space you need an outlet that isn’t work or maintaining your environment.” In the early days of the pandemic, you were probably doing some of these things to push back on lockdown anxiety at the time: regular Zoom happy hours, puzzles, new hobbies. But chances are that you’ve dropped quite a few of those habits as pandemic fatigue set in. As Covid-19 numbers rise all over the U.S., it’s more important than ever to try and return to that mindset, and it could be a key to keeping your winter spirits high too.

Find ways to safely inject distanced social time and absorbing activities into your life—maybe that means an even more avant-garde hobby, fewer but more quality Zoom gatherings, or layering up like Randy in A Christmas Story and heading out for a polar stroll. The more fun you can seek out during this challenging winter, the more favors you’ll be doing yourself, and society at large.

 
Erin Berger

By Erin Berger

 —  Erin Berger is a freelance writer and former culture editor at Outside magazine. She’s based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she skis, bikes, and hikes. She has a puppy named Henry.

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