It’s that time of year again. The sun is setting early. The weather is getting colder and colder. And with the rise of respiratory illnesses, including RSV and COVID-19, we’re spending even more time indoors, away from our family and friends. These winter months can take a toll on your physical and mental well-being. You may find yourself feeling more irritable, having low energy, or even struggling to do day to day routines. Maintaining your mental health through these winter months is important in supporting your overall health, safety and wellness. These tips can help you beat the winter blues and manage those negative feelings.

Get outside and exercise

Regular exercise is good for your body and mind. Even getting just 15 minutes of moderate exercise a day can boost your energy, help you sleep better and improve your mood. The cold weather doesn’t mean you are stuck inside. Get creative with ways to stay fit during the winter. Bundle up and go outside to take a walk and get some fresh air and necessary vitamin D. Exercise will reduce stress and help you relax, and spending time in daylight, even in winter, will benefit your mood. If you aren’t able to get outside, there are still many options for at-home workouts. Find online videos to follow along or virtual classes to join. You may even find these types of classes offer a way to connect with others while you enjoy the physical benefits.

Whether outside or inside, getting daily exercise is just one way to keep your body and mind strong throughout the winter months.

Keep up healthy eating and sleep habits

Eating a healthy, nutritious diet is a core component of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Diets high in processed foods and refined sugar have been connected to worsening mood disorders, including depression. It may be challenging with all those leftover holiday foods and desserts, but focus on maintaining balance - fill up on healthy fruits, vegetables, and proteins, but allow yourself the occasional indulgence.

Getting a good night’s sleep is just as vital. While too much sugar can worsen your mood, so can too little sleep. Lack of sleep has been associated with an increased risk of depression and other mental health effects. And a healthy amount of sleep can improve your mental and emotional resilience. But with less daylight in the winter months, our circadian rhythms - the body’s natural clock that helps regulate important functions like sleep cycles and mood - can be thrown off. To combat this, maintain a healthy sleep routine. Try going to bed and waking up on a consistent schedule. Avoid electronics in the bedroom or watching television right before bed. Consistency will be key in getting your body on a healthy sleep cycle, regardless of the daylight - or lack thereof - outside.

Have a support system and stay connected

Studies have shown that having a strong support system and maintaining social interaction can be greatly beneficial in reducing negative mental health symptoms. COVID-19 changed the way we connect and interact with friends and family and the winter months provide a unique set of challenges. While it was easier to socialize safely during the warm weather by staying distanced outdoors, you can still find ways to connect. Schedule regular video chats with friends and family, reach out by phone or email, or even send a letter in the mail. For some extra fun, plan virtual trivia sessions, movie screenings, or other events. You might even want to make some new virtual connections. Look for online book clubs, interest groups, support groups, or other communities to join.

It’s important to reach out to your support system and talk with those you trust when you feel like you’re struggling. Be open and discuss your concerns and how you’re managing them. These interactions, even virtual, can help build up your emotional and mental resilience.

Keep up with your other appointments

Taking care of your mental health includes taking care of your overall health. Don’t neglect your physical health. Keep up with your regular dental visits, primary care visits, and any other ongoing wellness appointments. Many practices are still offering telehealth appointments when possible. So you can still take care of your physical health without needing to go out in the cold!

Meditate and be mindful

Meditation and mindfulness has been shown to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Try practicing meditation for even just ten minutes a day. Meditating in the morning or before bed can help you start the day on a calm note or clear your mind of the stresses of the day. If you are new to meditation or find it difficult to quiet your mind, try some guided meditation videos, apps, or podcasts. Meditation also doesn’t need to be a formal practice. Other activities such as yoga, listening to your favorite song, or taking a quiet walk - even in the cold weather - can help you be mindful and check in with your body and mind.

Adopt some CBT practices

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of treatment that helps people learn to identify thought patterns that have a negative influence on their behavior and emotions and how to change those patterns. These automatic negative thoughts are replaced with more objective, realistic thoughts. If you are not able to see your therapist as often, are still waiting to connect with a therapist, or are unable to access therapy, you can still adopt some of these CBT practices into your daily life.

  • Journaling: Writing is an effective way to gather information about your thoughts and feelings. Document the time of the mood or thought, the source of it, how intense it was, and how you reacted. You can also list the negative thoughts that occur and the positive thoughts you can choose instead, and keep track of the new thoughts and behaviors you put into practice. This helps you better identify, describe, and evaluate your moods and thought patterns, and in turn, better change, adapt, or cope with them.
  • Cognitive restructuring or reframing: This involves identifying and challenging the negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions you frequently experience. Once identified, you can explore why they took root and learn how to reframe those thoughts so they’re more positive and productive. For example, if you have a difficult day at work, thinking, “I’m useless and a terrible worker” can be reframed as, “This wasn’t my best day, but I’m skilled at my job and a valuable worker.” You can find several worksheets online that can help you identify and reframe your cognitive distortions.
  • Relaxation and stress reduction techniques: Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, meditation, and imagery can help lower your stress and increase your feeling of control. Practicing these techniques during a distressing or stressful situation can break the cycle of those negative thought patterns and clear your mind so you can think more rationally and logically.
  • Behavioral experiments: These are designed to identify the thought patterns that influence your behavior. Before starting a task that typically makes you anxious, you predict what will happen, and afterward see if the prediction came true. Over time, you will see that the worst-case scenario you were worried about isn’t likely to happen. This helps reduce that initial anxiety and “what if” type of thinking that may keep you from starting or completing those tasks.
  • Activity scheduling and behavior activation: When we’re stressed, pleasurable activities are often the first to go. This can be especially true during the winter months when it feels harder to get out of the house and be motivated. Intentionally taking part in activities that you enjoy reduces negative thinking and promotes positive emotions and well-being. Try scheduling the activities you’re likely to put off - going for a walk, working on a hobby, running an errand, or learning a new skill. By scheduling these activities, you’ll be more likely to follow through with them and, in turn, benefit from the positive feelings that come from doing the enjoyable activity.

When to seek medical attention

The winter months may have you feeling more isolated, unmotivated, or stressed. While these tips can help you manage your mental health through these months, it’s possible your feelings may be indicative of a more serious disorder. It’s important to call your doctor if you experience signs such as:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day
  • Decreased interest or pleasure in activities that you used to enjoy
  • Changes in weight and appetite
  • Feeling worthless, hopeless, or excessively guilty
  • Difficulty concentrating more than usual
  • Experiencing strong mood swings
  • Thoughts of death, suicide, or harming others

Taking care of your mental health is a year-round practice. The winter doesn’t mean you’re stuck indoors and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t do the things you enjoyed in the warmer months. While you may need to be a little more creative, you can certainly still connect with others, enjoy outside activities, and get that social interaction we all need to stay mentally healthy and happy. With these practices and healthy habits, it’s possible to see the sunnier side of winter.

Lifespan Blog Team

The Lifespan Blog Team is working to provide you with timely and pertinent information that will help keep you and your family happy and healthy.