In January and February, it can be hard to summon a positive attitude about winter. The holidays are over, but the days are still extremely short. The weather is frigid in most parts of the United States, and there’s isn’t another fun holiday until Valentine’s Day, which most people are conflicted about anyway.
All these factors can lead to a major decline in mental health, with some people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder that tends to manifest in winter. It’s estimated that between 1.4 to 9.9 percent of each state’s population suffers from SAD every year, depending on where they’re situated. If you believe that you’re suffering from SAD, you should consult a doctor or therapist.
If you’re just feeling down because of the crummy weather, here are some little tips that will help boost your mood this winter.
1. Get outside when it’s sunny
There are two reasons why the lack of sun in winter affects our mood. Human beings get the majority of our vitamin D from the sun, and vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to depression. The sun’s rays are such a powerful source of vitamin D that just six days of casual sun exposure can make up for almost 50 days with no sun.
Another reason why the sun affects our mood is that it helps regulate our circadian rhythm. When our circadian rhythms are out of sync, it can make us feel tired and irritable.
To mitigate the effect of the long winter nights, try and get outside as much as possible when during the daytime hours. Open your curtains and blinds and take advantage of sunny weather to go for a walk and get some fresh air.
2. Exercise regularly
It seems counterintuitive but getting outside and getting some physical exercise is one of the best things you can do to combat the winter blues. A 2005 study from Harvard University found that walking for 35 minutes five days a week helped improve symptoms of mild to moderate depression. You’ll get sunlight on your skin (if the sun is out), plus you’ll get the mood-enhancing benefits of physical activity.
If it’s too cold to go outside, you can work out at home by lifting weights, doing yoga, or using a convenient workout app like Sworkit or Keelo.
3. Pet your dog, or offer to walk your neighbor’s
Research has shown that spending just 15 minutes a day petting or playing with a pet has been shown to reduce stress hormones and boost our levels of serotonin, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter. The change in these hormone levels causes our blood pressure to drop and can help improve our mood.
If you don’t have your own pet, you can offer to walk a friend’s dog or drop in on their cat while they’re at work. If you want to make some money while boosting your mood, the app Rover allows you to make a profile so you can sign up to walk dogs in your spare time.
4. Slide into a warm bath
There might not be any scientific basis behind taking a warm bath at the end of the day, but it does feel amazing, especially in the winter.
After feeling cold all day, running a tub full of warm water will bring your body temperature up, allowing you to get into bed feeling warm and relaxed. Using all-natural Epsom salts in your bath helps to relieve aches and pains, and has been shown to provide relief from a variety of physical ailments including arthritis, bruises, post-workout muscle soreness, and fibromyalgia.
5. Use a light box
If you aren’t able to get outside during the winter hours when it’s sunny and are really feeling the effects of seasonal depression, you can use a light box to receive light therapy that mimics the effect of natural daylight. Most doctors advise sitting in front of a light therapy device for 30 minutes every day, preferably right after you wake up.
Research from Harvard University has found that light therapy is as effective as antidepressant medication. If you want to buy one of these devices, consult your doctor first, and make sure you’re purchasing one that uses fluorescent rather than UV light.
6. Keep your diet healthy
In the winter, it’s natural to crave carbs, sweet foods, and other indulgences that we know will cheer us up. However, it’s important to keep our diet healthy, especially in the winter.
Simple carbs and sugar can spike our blood sugar, which will make us feel happy in the short-term, but leave us feeling empty and exhausted once they’ve worked their way through our system. Instead, swap out empty carbs like white bread and cake for complex carbs like brown rice, quinoa, or whole-wheat pasta, which keep our blood sugar steady and keep us feeling full for longer.
7. Make a playlist of upbeat music that you know will cheer you up
In the winter, the cold and dark makes it hard to get up with vigor and celebrate the little victory of getting through a day. A little mood-boosting trick is to create a playlist of songs that you know will make you happy, and have it cued up whenever you need it.
Whatever you fill it with is up to you, but research has shown that positive, fast, beat-heavy music are all common elements of songs that are considered to be “happy.” Some popular songs that appear on many mood-boosting playlists include “I’m A Believer” by the Monkees, “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen, and “Mama Said” by The Shirelles.
8. Give yourself something to look forward to by planning a vacation
If you’re frustrated with the long days and feel like the winter will never end, give yourself something to look forward to by planning a vacation.
In the winter, most people’s ideal destination is somewhere sunny, but even just a quick jaunt out of town can shake things up and give you something to anticipate in the weeks leading up to your trip. You’ll be so busy organizing transportation, booking accommodation, and making a packing list that the weeks will fly by.
9. Start a meditation practice
Many people find that daily meditation can really help them tap into their feelings and understand what’s making them feel so low. A lot of people feel both anxiety and depression in the winter because they’re simply not able to understand what’s making them feel depressed and think that it’s something that can be solved by simply willing themselves to feel better.
A study published in 2007 revealed that “people who were practicing mindfulness showed marked reductions in activity in a region of the brain often linked to self-evaluation and analysis (the medial prefrontal cortex).” Meditation can help people process and make space for their feelings and can also help us feel less critical of ourselves.
10. Start journaling
Many people journal as a way of processing their feelings, so they can better understand what’s making them feel anxious or depressed. This process of expressing your feelings through journaling can be extremely helpful during the cold winter months. Another great practice is gratitude journaling, which is the act of writing down things that you’re grateful for.
Research into this practice found that “translating thoughts into concrete language — whether oral or written — has advantages over just thinking the thoughts: It makes us more aware of them, deepening their emotional impact.”
11. Get out and help others
If you’re feeling isolated this winter, like nothing you do matters, one way to immediately prove the contrary is to get outside your home and help others. Volunteering can help us connect with our community, and has been shown to have a lasting impact on our happiness if we do it regularly. Sure, giving money makes us feel good, but it doesn’t have the same impact as getting out there and helping others with our own two hands.
12. Take advantage of the longer evening hours to learn a new skill
If you’re frustrated by the long nights and feel cooped up at home, take advantage of this downtime by learning a new skill or hobby. Knitting, painting, woodworking, or even a new computer programming language can easily be learned at home. These new skills will help express your creativity and will give you a sense of accomplishment.