After supporting countless clients overcome the challenges brought on by our coldest, darkest season while also surviving a global pandemic, I'm revealing my top tips to help you beat the winter blues. By the end of this blog post, you will have 7 concrete ways you can care for yourself when struggling with seasonal depression.
Are the Winter Blues Getting You Down?
January can begin as an exciting month. It may feel like a fresh start as you enter the new year, but it can also bring on complex emotions. Transitioning from holiday mode back into work, school and everyday responsibilities can be challenging. The crash from the holiday buzz, the short days and limited sunlight, and the pressure of things being somehow different now that it is a new year may leave you feeling drained or anxious.
Many people experience the winter blues during the darker, colder days of the winter season. Some may feel lethargic or less motivated, while others may experience more extreme or debilitating bouts of depression. 2-3% of Canadians experience severe Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in their lifetime, while many others experience milder forms of SAD.
This year, the colder temperatures and reduced sunlight come with the additional complications and stressors of a global pandemic. The winter blues may be amplified by the grief of being separated from loved ones, not being able to do your favourite activities or the uncertainty of what the rest of the year will bring.
Whatever complex emotions are arising for you this winter, know that it is okay to not feel okay.
7 Tips to Help Beat the Winter Blues
Whether you simply have the winter & pandemic blues or you have a diagnosis of SAD, I hope you find these tips helpful in caring for yourself this winter season.
1. Simplify your expectations
Someone said to me recently “If we didn’t have electricity; we would be hibernating right now”. Let that sink in for a moment. It is natural for our mood and energy levels to shift with the seasons. Are you expecting yourself to function at the same rate of productivity as the spring and summer?
It is okay to slow down in the winter. Give yourself permission to rest and go inward. Simplifying our expectations of ourselves can reduce the stress and judgment we may feel about not doing "more, quicker".
We can instead, focus on our basic needs. Prioritizing our basic needs looks like making sure we eat, sleep, drink water, and practice basic hygiene. If this is all you manage to do from this list, that is great!
Taking care of these basic needs helps us maintain a baseline. If we are feeling down, and are also undernourished, dehydrated, and exhausted - it is going to be much harder to recover.
2. Move your body daily
It sounds simple, but this can be a challenging task when we feel depressed or lethargic. The trick here is to start before you feel like it, because you may never feel like it. This is why it is okay to keep this simple as well.
Find whatever feels the most accessible to you and start there, whether that means going for a walk around the block, following along with a Youtube yoga class, or doing an hour of housework. Even 20 minutes of movement a day can reduce the intensity of the winter blues.
More and more studies are revealing that exercise does indeed improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. You do not need to be experienced at whatever movement you choose to feel the benefits!
3. Increase exposure to light
As the winter blues are linked to limited exposure to sunlight, increasing your light exposure can help reduce your symptoms. Get outside on those sunny days, and open the blinds to let natural light into your home. Turning your lights in the morning and dimming them as you prepare for bed can help your body maintain a consistent sleep routine.
You could also talk to your doctor about Light Therapy, which has proven effective for people with SAD. Generally, this involves purchasing a lightbox or lamp and exposing yourself to its light for 10-15 minutes each day. It is important to consult a practitioner and ensure you purchase a lamp that is known to be effective for SAD.
4. Welcome the emotions that arise
When was the last time you checked in with yourself and asked “How am I feeling? What do I need right now?” This is your reminder to do just that.
Each emotion you have holds wisdom about what you need in a given moment.
See if you can welcome each emotion, and listen to what need it is hinting at. Sometimes sadness is letting us know that we need some extra care & kindness, or to slow down. Other times it is letting us know that we need to connect with a loved one or take time to cry and express the feeling.
This leads to Tip #5...
5. Practice self-kindness
When you are feeling sad, low, or lethargic, how do you speak to yourself? Is your tone harsh? Do you expect yourself to "just get over it?" Being hard on ourselves for feeling sad often increases the intensity of what we are feeling, and can keep us feeling low for longer.
See if you can incorporate some kind phrases or gestures of care. How do you respond when someone you love is feeling said? Maybe you let them know you are there for them. Or you remind them these feelings will pass. What other ways do you show care? Do you make them tea or hug them? All of these things you can offer yourself.
Treating ourselves with kindness when we are feeling blue can make all the difference.
Keep in mind that whatever is going on for you today, you are doing the best you can.
6. Talk to a professional
If you are concerned that your winter blues are an episode of depression, reach out for help. You do not have to work through this alone.
A great place to start is your General Practitioner or Family Doctor. They will be able to assess the need for medication, and also refer you to counselling or group services that might be helpful.
If you want to go the route of a private therapist, you can look through Psychology Today to find someone who is the right fit for you. Many people find counselling helpful during this time of the year.
7. Reflect on your intention for the year
If you have picked an intention or word for the year, take some time to reflect on it and how it can support you now. Take some time to journal and reflect using the Journal Prompts below.
Remember that your intention for the year is your guidepost; something to come back to for clarity, comfort, and direction when you are struggling.
(If you have not yet picked an intention for 2021 you can check out my last blog post which will guide you through the process).
Journal Prompts for Mid-Winter:
How has this month been for you? Delightful? Disappointing? Energizing? Draining? Take a moment to reflect on the days of 2021 that have passed so far. If you could describe January 2021 in one word, what would it be?
What was your biggest takeaway or lesson from January 2021?
If you set an intention for 2021, how have you been able to embody this intention this month?
How can you come back to your intention and let it guide you as you move into February?
End January 2021 with Care and Intention
As the first month of 2021 comes to a close, take time to slow down and reflect on the year so far. Yes, by the end of January the days are getting longer, but we are still in the heart of winter and the heart of a global pandemic. Be gentle with yourself in the process as you try out some of these tips and take extra care as you end this month.
Take solace knowing that there are ways you can care for yourself during this challenging time.
Amy Pinnell, MSW, RSW Brave Spirit Counselling