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Winter and Wellness–8 tips for maintianing mental health during winter months

seagulls in winter

               The winter months can be brutal not only on your cold fingers and toes but on your mental health and well-being.  The winter sun is low on the horizon and stays that way seemingly all day if you even get to see the sun through grey winter skies.  On the shortest day of the year the sun rises about 7:15am and sets at about 4:30pm–9 measly hours of light.  The start of winter also is a time that many people celebrate, whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, and/or Kwanza.  I’ve always reflected on the timeliness of these holidays, since it’s at this time that people seem to need a energizing distraction, to come together with family and celebrate. 

               For people living with mental illness, loss, trauma, or grief, the stress of holiday expectations  in combination with the lack of sunlight can be a double whammy.  A recent study released by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that all mental illnesses, not only Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD), follow a pattern of modulating intensity throughout the year–decreasing in summer months and increasing in winter months, especially eating disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD, suicide, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and anxiety (Ayers, etal., 2013). It makes a lot of sense somehow.  Winter has the tendency to isolate people, keeping people indoors, off the slick roads, out of nature’s frozen landscape, and subsequently out of the sunlight. 

               It’s surmised that Seasonal Affective Disorder is due in large part to low bodily exposure to light and its symptoms are similar to depression, however only surface between late fall and early spring (encompassing all of winter).  Treatments include light exposure, also called phototherapy, increased socialization, acupuncture, medication and and/or supplement use–most notably, vitamin D.

               The holidays at the beginning of winter do well to focus our attentions (and sometimes overwhelm them).  We’re immersed in social gatherings and family-time, gift-giving and receiving, bright ornamental lights on our houses and trees, fireplace and candle flames, special songs and music, rituals and focused prayers.  It’s a time of replacement suns if you will–everything a glow, artificial or not.  And it’s a time of sensory excitement–shops and TV shows are loaded with songs and sentiments of the season. 

              But, it’s January now, a month removed from the holidays, and 2 cold months away from spring.  How can we think and do things differently to feel differently if winter gets us down?

  • ·        Pay loving attention to what little light you do have–a fire burning in the hearth, the sun coming through the kitchen windows, candle light–and see its winter-time beauty.


  • ·        Take the time to let the sun filter through your eyelids, feeling the warmth on your face as it does.  Take time to bathe in whatever sunlight you can get.  I take a drive down to the water on sunny days just so I can soak up light through the car windows. Usually the sunlight is enough to make the inside of the car warm so you don’t have to keep the car running. 


  • ·       See your doctor about your vitamin D levels–if they’re low, you’ll be prescribed a super-strength vitamin D that you take once per week and will feel better.


  • ·        Enjoy whatever kind of exercise you can–indoor dancing, weights, walking the dog around the neighborhood, yoga.  Enjoyment is the key–move the way you want to, not how others expect you to.  I personally consider housecleaning a two-for-one exercise–getting clean and fit!


  • ·        De-clutter your indoor spaces and limit the stress on your senses, since you don’t have the luxury of getting outside as much where natural space is limitless and noises are dispersed. 


  • ·        Schedule time with friends and family and schedule time for yourself–a balance of these is the key.


  • ·        Remember what gives you joy and go get it or do it–listening to music, doing artwork, writing a friend, staying up late to watch a movie, reading your favorite blogs online, saying a prayer or meditating, reading sacred or spiritual texts, knitting or crocheting, petting your cat.  Whatever it is, remember to fit it in.


  • ·        Massage yourself (as best you can) with creams or massage oils and healing kindness.  If you don’t have a loved one to do it for you, and can’t spend the money on a massage therapist, do it for yourself.  Stimulate and care for the biggest organ of the human body–your skin. Affirm your body’s innate intelligence and healing potential while you work.  You’ll find you’re a bit warmer for it as well.

If you are suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder, Depression, other mental illness or life stressor, please see your primary care doctor for professional support.  Depression can be a life-threatening illness and is treatable.  Find ongoing, additional support right here at  www.LisaBrandiLCSW.com

Reference: Ayers, J.W, Althouse, B.M., Allem, J, Rosenquist, J. N., Ford, D.E., (2013). Seasonality in Seeking Mental Health Information on Google.  American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol. 44 (5), 520-525.

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