By Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk, MSPC
For some, winter evokes the visualization of a warm cozy fire, and the sight of a freshly fallen snow. For others, it’s contending with months of the rigid cold, darkness in the early hours of the evening, months of long nights, and the occasional icy conditions. Many experience each in combination. The winter season keeps many from engaging in activities that are enjoyable for most times of the year, brings people indoors, and at times, isolated and with minimal supports, more time to think, and lowered frequency of social interactions.
The following considerations will give a combination of factors that many contend with throughout the winter season, and examples of ways to cope with and experience winter in an array of healthy ways.
1. Distraction-the healthy kind: It’s essential to consider how an individual’s temperament, personality, emotional lability, mental health, and/or behavioral health impacts day to day functioning; especially during the winter season. For example, an individual with a negative affect has potential to increased vulnerability to depression, anxiety, and mood disorder. For many individuals, the months of early evenings and dark nights contribute to isolation and increased frequency of a negative internal dialogue, which may contribute to isolation, less social supports and positive interactions. Each of these factors impact an individual’s quality of life greatly. It is important to find ways to increase positive interactions, and lower negative and self-defeating thought processes.
This type of distraction is a great coping mechanism for contending with the winter seasons. For example, the presence of a negative internal dialogue, anxious and/or depressive behaviors and symptoms are difficult for individuals to experience; this becomes more difficult during times where increased isolation, less options for activities, and the potential for less supports is present. Learning the discipline to distract from negative thoughts more readily will increase mood, positive thought processes, and decrease depressive and anxious symptoms, while allowing negative thoughts to minimize. It is important to note that at times, negative thought patterns, and anxious and depressive symptoms are part of a long-term cognitive process and more difficult to distract from. When this happens, a person does have the option to allow, for example, ten to fifteen minutes to focus on the negative thoughts, journal those thoughts and feelings, and then begin engaging in distracting behaviors. Additionally, if the negative thoughts and/or feelings return, it is natural to feel frustrated. However, if this does happen, it is important to remember that with practice, it will be easier to distract from the negative thoughts and feelings. Practicing distraction in this manner has the potential to decrease the intensity and duration of negative internal dialogues, and assist with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Examples of Distraction are found below in Change the Environment.
- Change the Environment: Consider what is enjoyable; especially during the warmer weather when the opportunities for activities seem more available and with a more extensive variety of choice present. Now get creative. Take one or more of those activities and consider what could replace it during the winter months. For example, replace the adventure of hiking with snow tubing or take a brisk walk when the weather conditions permit. If spending time in the elements feels a bit overwhelming, volunteer, spend time with pets, or possibly volunteer at an animal shelter; if that feels enjoyable and seems to be a good cause. In addition, take time away from social media, and carve out time to have conversations with friends or family. This is beneficial over the phone and definitely in person. It is common to feel a shift in mood, increased levels of relaxation, and overall feelings of wellness after visiting with family or friends. Spend time laughing and engaging in humor, have a game night, or watch a funny movie. It is enjoyable and brings a healthy and light-hearted fun to daily life. Lastly, take time to meditate, listen to music, and/or dance.
- Therapy: When difficulties with mood exist, it’s essential to talk with your therapists. The process of therapy assists with issues with mood, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and an array of behavioral health and mental health issues. For example, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is present in approximately 5% of the population and occurs approximately 40% of the year (Kirlansik & Ibay, 2013, p. 607). Most times, SAD begins during the fall or winter months and starts to subside during the spring. However, this pattern has the potential to be present in the summer months (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 187). In this occurrence, the individual feels much better during winter months (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 187). Symptoms of SAD may be mild, moderate or severe. It is vital to seek out a therapist at the onset of difficult and distressing symptoms; especially when symptoms become unmanageable and begin to interfere with daily activities. At times, an individual may feel restless, have difficulty concentrating or starting a task, feel anxious, experience high levels of stress, and/or have a lessened desire for things enjoyable at other times of the year. It’s imperative to seek out support before emotional difficulties during the winter season manifest into SAD; especially if a biological predisposition exists and/or environmental factors are present. A therapist will be able to utilize a variety of methods, treatments, and techniques to assist with managing and lowering symptoms and restoring overall behavioral health and mental health.
- Natural Light: Exposure to natural light daily is essential. It assists with elevated mood and increased vitamin D levels. Therefore, open the blinds and take time outside when weather conditions permit. The winter season lasts for many months and taking this opportunity as often as possible is important for experiencing a healthy winter. On warmer days, it may be in the form of a walk or taking time out for a hot cup of tea on the porch. Give as many opportunities for sunlight and fresh air as possible. On the days the temperature is high enough to crack a few windows without increasing heating bills, take time to enjoy the rare opportunity. Take time to enjoy the natural sunlight while commuting to and from work each day. I enjoy the opportunities for fresh air and sunlight from opening all the windows in my vehicle. I find it relaxing. Lastly, if natural sunlight is difficult to get exposure to, for any reason, there are light therapy lamps available as an alternative. I have known therapists and clients that use light therapy during the winter months.
- Start a Project: Projects are a great way to enjoy the winter months. It’s a time to enjoy accomplishing things indoors; in the warmth of home. At times, there is opportunity to tackle larger projects in the home during the winter. This could be working with wood, painting a room, or refinishing an entire section the house (yes, this has potential to be enjoyable for some). However, if this feels overwhelming, start small and tackle cleaning out a few drawers or reorganizing a small area. With any project, it is important to feel a sense of accomplishment once the project is completed. I occasionally take time to build something small out of wood. It’s something I learned many years ago from my father and continue to enjoy currently. Additionally, many individuals enjoy working in the arts, which has potential to feel therapeutic as well. Winter is a great time to take a class in something enjoyable. For example, my neighbor takes a painting class and has mentioned many times how much she enjoys the creative and social aspects of the class. Lastly, if there are children roaming around, take time to spend time in their space doing an art or science project, or simply carve out time to read a book or series of books together.
6. Exercise: Physical health has power to improve overall health, balance cortisol levels and stress hormones, and support mental health and wellness. For example, for those with a passion for running, spending time outside in the elements and nature is quite familiar and comfortable. When winter conditions bring individuals inside, for many runners, getting on a treadmill has the tendency to feel restricting and well, frustrating. Yet, many individuals understand the importance of the safety factors involved with ice, slick outdoors conditions, and unsafe sidewalks and trails during this time of the year. Running is one example of adjusting physical activity in the winter, many types of physical activity and sports are limited to being indoors. This is where having numerous activities to engage in is beneficial. At times, individuals will start a gym membership that lasts only through the difficult winter months and when the conditions are too harsh to be outside, exercise is indoors. Exercise is something extremely personal and individual. It is important to find the right environments and educated trainers to assist with safety and personal goals. At times, individuals feel uncomfortable and/or insecure in regards to personal abilities or performance when starting an exercise regimen. Working through this difficult process builds discipline, confidence, and increases goal setting behaviors. It’s important to stay physically active consistently, to adapt activities during the winter months, and to have fun in the process. Lastly, eating healthy and well balanced each day is important for mental clarity, focus, mood, energy, and keeping away unnecessary inflammation. Treat the self well, be kind on days of struggle, set mini-goals, give time to adjust and readjust to new behaviors if necessary, and value the importance of maintaining a balance between physical health, behavioral health, and mental health.
In closing, it is important to venture out and try new things. An individual has the opportunities to try many things- ultimately it comes down to what works for each individual. It’s important to be open to trying new things consistently throughout life; even when it’s frustrating. Consistent reminders to take one behavior that isn’t working and to replace it with another behavior that may be beneficial to overall health and wellness is vital to experiencing a healthy winter (applicable with most behaviors). In a situation where an individual has tried different things, is still struggling, and having difficulty figuring out what works, or doesn’t know where to begin, seek out professional assistance from a therapist. Lastly, it is imperative to treat the self with kindness, to experience laughter and humor each day, to give time to adapt to new habits and behaviors, and to stay positive in trying new activities. Be realistic in regards to what each individual contends with and carries each day, as well as, individual starting points, and the time and dedication it takes to work towards uncovering each of the facets involved in reaching long-term goals towards a healthier life.
Feel free to share some of the ways you’ve implemented new habits and behaviors to experience winter in healthy ways. Leave a comment with any questions or curiosity you may have for more information regarding this or other subjects.
Until next time – learn, grow & enjoy,
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Kurlansik Stuart L, Ibay Annamarie D. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Indian Journal of Clinical Practice. 2013 Dec; 24(7): 607-610.