This time of year is tough. These cold months between the holidays and the first day of spring are like one giant, perpetual Monday staring you in the face. I’m generally a pretty happy-go-lucky person, but when the chilly months roll around, my personality changes. I get down in the dumps over just about everything.
This time last year, I was living on the Florida coast, where I experienced my first sunny winter in over a decade. I’d always known I tended to fall into a funk each winter, but experiencing a January without snow made me realize just how tough a time I had each year. That Florida winter, I had plenty of energy and optimism — just like I do in the warmer months. When I’m living up north, a typical January for me usually means sleeping late, feeling hopeless and getting close to nothing accomplished. When I saw how good life can be year-round when winter blues aren’t part of the picture, I knew it was time to change how I approach the cold, slushy season.
Over time, I’ve found that if I want to stay productive and avoid falling into a stagnant, melancholy rut for several months, I have to take extra care of myself when winter rolls around. The toughest part of my seasonal funk is a tendency for anxious thoughts to circle my head on repeat. All my stray thoughts and worries make me unable to concentrate on anything, which just made my overall stress mount. I can’t get my mind to slow down until, periodically, all of the anxiety would culminate and explode into a total loss of purpose. What’s the point of any of this anyway? I would think. I just want to lay in bed until April. But that, my friends, is not an option. Winter won’t be here forever but we’re cheating ourselves if we put our already-short lives on hold waiting for the sun to come out.
So, I finally stopped rolling my eyes at some of the more obvious tidbits of advice and starting actually trying them, life in the cold months became so much more cheerful. Here’s what has most helped me break out of the blues and chill out:
1. Being present. To me, being present means to placing my full attention into whatever I’m doing at any given moment and not worrying about the future or past. This changes everything about how we experience life. In fact, I was thinking about naming this list “how to be more present,” because everything else I do to stay sane stems back to this. It all comes down to whether we’re engaging with that little voice in our heads that tries to narrate life or whether we’re engaging with what’s actually in front of us instead. Think about it for a moment: how often are we actually fully experiencing what we’re doing? Rather, how often are we running through our grocery list in our heads during a conversation, or sitting at our desk at work replaying some past awful encounter that we mentally relive each day, or spending our morning commute worrying about hypothetical scenarios? Not being present becomes so routine that we barely realize we’re doing it. When we give all of our brainpower to our present surroundings instead of the running to-do lists in our heads, we start to notice things we’ve never seen before. Life becomes Technicolor. Many of the resentments, worries, and self-conscious thoughts we hold begin to fade away, because those are usually based on a past reality instead of what’s happening in the moment. This has changed everything for me.
2. Writing morning pages. About two years ago, when I was in the throes of another past funk, I read Julia Cameron’s beloved "The Artist’s Way." I’ve said it before and I’ll probably never stop saying it, but this practice was by far the most beneficial thing I took from it. Morning pages are three stream-of-consciousness, hand-written notebook pages written each morning. They act as a place to dump the floating “junk thoughts” in your head that distract from the present moment, and over time it becomes a form of meditation. Julia Cameron has published lots of information about it online if you’re looking to learn more about why it’s so awesome!
3. Exercise. Working out slows down my mind and enables me to focus like nothing else. As much as making the trip to the gym may be a source of dread, exercise can be incredibly therapeutic. As Elle Woods (and I guess scientists, too) says, “endorphins make you happy!” There’s a reason people spend their lives chasing that famous “runner’s high.” It’s like free happy pills!
4. Yoga. Yes, yoga is exercise, but it’s a category all its own. It fosters presence of mind, challenging yourself, and appreciating who you are in this exact moment. It’s great for lifting your mood and getting your blood flowing.
5. Getting enough sleep. This seems to be the most obvious tip for leading a better life while remaining the toughest thing for most of us to adhere to. Busy lives, never-ending to-do lists and ever-present worries going to bed and falling asleep tough. I am still working on good sleep habit myself, but it makes such a difference. Even if it cuts two hours out of your night, extra sleep makes time rather than wasting it. A well-rested mind can get you through your daily tasks in a fraction of the time. And not feeling sluggish all day? It’s priceless.
6. Filling the well (i.e. having new experiences to keep you on your toes). Another "Artist’s Way" practice, “filling the well” is all about surrounding yourself with new experiences and things that inspire you. The author talks about it in the context of artists, but this is a ritual that’s helpful for anyone in any walk of life. “Filling the well” leads you to fresh ideas about how to go about the challenges in your life and new ways to channel your creativity. Just like traveling to a new city gives you a rush because everything’s so new, taking a different route on your walk home will expose you to things you’ve never seen before and make you feel more aware – and more alive! It’s an easy way to find some appreciation for what’s around you when you’re in a rut.
7. Light therapy. For some of us, the worst part of the winter months is all the time away from direct sunlight. I’ve always thought the extra burst of Vitamin D light therapy would be incredibly helpful. I have yet to go for it, mostly because of the price tag. Readers, have you ever bought a light therapy box? What did you think of it? I’m really curious.
8. Keeping a gratitude journal.Oprah taught me this one. Don’t laugh.
Remember seasons change and winter blues are temporary. Spring will be here one of these days, and in the meantime, you always have your “Summer Fun” Pinterest board. Hold tight and try to smile!
Reprinted with permission from The Frisky. Want more?