This week I am leading a discussion at a senior community on ways to battle the winter blues. Here are some of my talking points.
We’ve officially entered the hard months, the “dark ages” as the midshipmen at the Naval Academy say: the time of the year when the sun disappears and the pale complexions of your friends remind you that you had better take your vitamins or else you’ll have a cold to go with your pasty look.
Winter can make achieving good mental health more challenging – especially if being in nature is such a central component to your efforts to stay cheery, as it is mine. Rest assured that it can be done. It just takes a bit more creativity and deliberation. Here are a few winter depression busters that will keep you sunny enough until Spring gets here.
Watch the sugar and alcohol.
I think our body gets the cue just before Thanksgiving that it will be hibernating for a few months, so it needs to ingest everything edible in sight. And I’m convinced the snow somehow communicates to the human brain the need to consume every kind of chocolate available in the house. People prone to depression and addiction need to be especially careful with sweets because the addiction to sugar and white-flour products is very real and physiological, affecting the same biochemical systems in your body as other drugs like heroin. According to Kathleen DesMaisons, author of Potatoes Not Prozac: Your relationship to sweet things is operating on a cellular level. It is more powerful than you have realized….What you eat can have a huge effect on how you feel.” This includes alcohol. Even a moderate amount can make your depression worse. It’s a depressant, after all.
Eat good mood foods.
Eating a good diet not only means restraining from too many processed foods, sweets, and alcohol, it is filling your gas tank with optimum fuel. In all my research of nutritional therapy, I zeroed down the function of good mood foods to three important jobs: regulating blood sugar, reducing inflammation, and improving gut bacteria. Why? There is a strong link between blood sugar dysregulation or insulin resistance and mental health; much of depression can be traced to an inflammatory response; and our gut is essentially our second brain, home to most of the neurotransmitters responsible for well-being. It needs to be a happy home. Of all the good foods available to us to eat today, here are my blue-ribbon picks for aiding our mental health: seeds (pumpkin, chia, and flax), nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), beans and lentils, avocados, berries, yogurt and kefir, wild salmon, apples, mushrooms and onions, ginger, kale and leafy greens, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and sauerkraut.
Hydrate well and balance electrolytes.
One of the easiest things we can do in the winter to maintain good mental health is to hydrate. Not with soda and wine. With water mixed with a little lemon or lime and salt, which provide some of the natural minerals needed to keep your electrolytes balanced. By the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated, and dehydration can significantly impact your mood. It slows down your brain functioning, affecting your ability to think clearly. A 2012 study from the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Lab showed that even a 1.5 percent loss in water volume was enough to cause significant mood changes. Electrolyte imbalance, sometimes caused by dehydration, can mimic the cognitive impairment we experience in conditions like dementia. So be sure to add to your water a dash of sodium and citrus, and get enough magnesium, potassium, calcium, and zinc from foods like avocados, bananas, seeds, or use an electrolyte supplement.
Get good sleep.
Sleep is critical for optimal human functioning, which includes the necessary plucking of thoughts and minor irritations that can grow into states of anxiety and depression. Researchers have found using MRI scans that sleep deprivation causes a person to become irrational because the brain can’t put an emotional event in proper perspective and is incapable of making an appropriate response. That filing process happens largely as we lie horizontal.
Anyone who has ever experienced insomnia knows that the more you demand your body to sleep, the more sleep evades you. It’s like a catching a butterfly. You have to sit still and let it come to you. Establishing good sleep hygiene helps with this: shutting down all electronics hours before you go to bed, limiting caffeinated beverages during the day and especially in the evening, avoiding triggering conversations after dark, and engaging in calming activities before your head hits the pillow — reading happy stuff or watching Hallmark shows absence of violent scenes that will pop up in your dreams. Pretend you are a Buddhist monk for the last two hours of your day and eventually you will achieve a regulated circadian rhythm and be getting your proper zzzzs.
Gandhi once wrote that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl based his “logotherapy” on the belief that human behavior is motivated by the search for a life purpose, that by pursuing meaning in our life, we are able to transcend our suffering. And positive psychologists like University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman and Dan Baker, Ph.D., director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, believe that a sense of purpose–committing oneself to a noble mission–and acts of altruism are strong antidotes to depression.
According to a 2002 study in Pain Management Nursing, nurses suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain. The winter months are a good time to give back because the need is greater, and the holiday spirit ideally lasts until February.
Don’t let the cold weather be an excuse not to sweat. We have centers today called “gyms” where people exercise inside! Granted, it’s not the same–watching the news or listening to the soundtrack from “Rocky” as you walk in place as opposed to strolling along wooded paths with a view of the bay. But you accomplish the goal: getting your heart to beat a bit faster. Volumes of research point to the benefits of exercise for mood, like the study led by Dr. James A. Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University, which discovered that, among the 202 depressed people randomly assigned to various treatments, three sessions of vigorous aerobic exercise were approximately as effective at treating depression as daily doses of Zoloft, when the treatment effects were measured after four months. Even light and moderate amounts of movement are enough to lift the mood.
Use a light lamp.
Bright-light therapy–involving sitting in front of a fluorescent light box that delivers an intensity of 10,000 lux–can be as effect as antidepressant medication for mild and moderate depression and can yield substantial relief for Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is because they help regulate a person’s circadian rhythm, the body’s internal biological clock that governs certain brain wave activity and hormone production. The fluctuation of natural light can cause mood-related chemicals to shift, causing some blahs, especially in sensitive folks. Sitting in front of a sunbox doesn’t provide vitamin D as natural sunlight so you still need to get outside, but it can boost your mood and make you feel like you’re in Florida for a half hour each day.
Wear bright colors.
I have no research supporting this theory, but I’m quite convinced there is a link between feeling optimistic and sporting bright colors. It’s in line with “faking it ’til you make it,” desperate attempts to trick your brain into thinking that it’s sunny and beautiful outside–time to celebrate Spring–even though it’s a blizzard with sleet causing some major traffic jams.
I tend to wear a lot of black because it’s supposed to make you look thinner and I can hide my spills. But the result is that I appear as if and feel like I’m going to a funeral every afternoon. So between the months of November and March I make a conscious effort to wear bright green, purple, blue, and pink.
Force yourself outside.
I realize that the last thing you want to do when it’s 20 degrees outside and the roads are slushy is to head outside for a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood. It’s much more fun to cuddle up with a good novel or make chocolate chip cookies and enjoy them with a hot cup of Jo.
On many winter days–especially in late January and early February when my brain is done with the darkness–I have to literally force myself outside, however brief. Because even on cloudy and overcast days, your mood can benefit from exposure to sunlight. Midday light, especially, provides Vitamin D to help boost your limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. And there is something so healing about connecting with nature, even if it’s covered in snow.
Talk to a trusted friend.
It’s a predictable pattern: as soon as your mood starts to head south to be with the sun, you isolate. Because you don’t want to drag anyone down with you, and everyone else is smiling and posting happy things on Facebook. I’ve often said to people that what I find so painful about depression is not the symptoms themselves, but the loneliness I experience when the symptoms set in – because the feelings and thoughts are so hard to understand for someone who hasn’t experienced depression. What I’ve come to realize is that we don’t need validation from a crowd. The empathy and compassion of one person in our life is enough. As long as we are sharing with someone the barometer of our mood, we are staying in the safe zone. The sadness has a vent and it’s not fermenting.
Take up a project.
There’s no time like winter to start a home project, like decluttering the apartment or purging all the old clothes in your closet. When a friend of mine was going through a tough time, she painted her entire house–every room downstairs with two different colors. Not only did it help distract her from her problems, but it provided her with a sense of accomplishment that she desperately needed those months, something to feel good about as she saw other things crumble around her. Projects like organizing bookshelves, shredding old tax returns, and cleaning out desk drawers are perfect activities for the dreary months of the year.
My mood can often be lifted by meeting a new challenge–an activity that is formidable enough to keep my attention, but easy enough to do when my brain is muddied. Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discussed this concept in his bestselling book Flow – that state of mind with so much focus and single-mindedness that you can forget to eat, sleep, and shower. Research indicates that people who experience flow on a regular basis have lower levels of depression and anxiety. It’s about stretching yourself to the optimal degree – to activate without inciting frustration – a difficult balance. I try to stretch myself in a small way every winter–whether it be researching which foods are best for my mood and attempting a new recipe that incorporates them, leading a prayer service at the senior community where I work, or revamping my website. It keeps my brain from freezing, like the rest of my body.
Keep a gratitude journal.
A very wise person once told me to try to let go of the big thoughts (“When will I feel better?” “Will I ever feel good again?”) and concentrate instead on the little joys that happen throughout my day, to allow those unsuspecting moments of delight carry me over the ones fraught with anxiety and sadness. So each day I record in my mood journal a list of joys: a walk in the woods, my daughter’s text from college, seven hours of sleep, a warm dinner. This exercise forces me to be open to little joys, to collect them, and to have more appreciation for what is right in front of me. Psychologists like Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California Riverside say that keeping a gratitude journal (or a list of joys) can increase your energy, and relieve pain and fatigue.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.” I suppose that’s why some of the funniest people out there— Stephen Colbert, Art Buchwald, Robin Williams, Ben Stiller—have journeyed through periods of torment. There is an unspoken message hidden within a giggle that says this: “I promise, you’ll get through this.” In fact, New York City’s Big Apple Circus has used humor to console sick children since 1986, when they started sending teams of clowns into hospital rooms with “rubber chicken soup” and other fun surprises.
Studies indicate that human beings can heal (at least partially) from a host of different illnesses if they learn how to laugh. For example, in 2006 researchers led by Lee Berk and Stanley A. Tan at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California, found that two hormones—beta-endorphins (which alleviate depression) and human growth hormone (HGH, which helps with immunity) increased by 27 and 87 percent respectively when volunteers anticipated watching a humorous video. Simply anticipating laughter boosted health-protecting hormones and chemicals.
Lots of folks lump meditation and prayer together. I think they are very different. Meditation, for me, is a mental-health exercise of being aware of my breath and staying in the present moment as much as possible. Prayer is my chat session with God. I start by saying my three favorite prayers: “The Prayer of Saint Francis,” “The Serenity Prayer,” and “The Third Step Prayer.” All of them basically say this: “Big Guy, I’m putting you in charge today because, just like yesterday, my brain feels like Chuck E. Cheese on Kids Eat Free Night. I’m hoping you can use my struggle and my pain for some greater cause, and, if not, please don’t let me know that. Help me to see with eyes of faith, hope, and love, and to always err on the side of compassion.” Then I read a few scripture passages, as well as a piece from a spiritual author, like Henri Nouwen. If I still have time, or if I’m especially anxious, I will pray the rosary over and over again, until I can catch my breath.