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10 ways to manage stress in winter

Feeling low this winter? It’s not just you.

“Many people experience the winter blues,” says Mary Ellen Herx, a HopeHealth chaplain based in Massachusetts. “For some people it’s feeling sluggish, not having a lot of energy. For some people it’s a dip in mood.”

While winter is here to stay for at least a few more months, your winter blues don’t have to. Small changes can make a big difference.

Woman with short hair wearing black rimmed glasses in front of green foliage
Mary Ellen Herx, chaplain at HopeHealth

The real effects of winter on mood and stress

What you’re feeling is often the result of normal changes in your body due to winter.

“So much of what’s going on is physical,” explains Mary Ellen. “We get less sunlight in fall and winter, which disrupts our internal clock. That causes a drop in our brain’s serotonin levels, which affects mood. It disrupts our circadium rhythm, which plays a role in sleep and mood.”

(Note: Maybe you’ve heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD, and are wondering if this is all one and the same. “Not exactly,” says Mary Ellen. SAD can have similar triggers, but it’s much more severe — for example, you may not get out of bed for days on end, rather than just feeling sluggish and low. If that could be you, reach out to your health team for support.)

> Read: B.U.R.N. I.T.: Simple reminders to stop caregiver burnout

10 stress-busting tips for winter

Because of those seasonal shifts in your body, you may be especially vulnerable to stress in winter — namely, when your serotonin and melatonin levels are running low.

Luckily, you can actually help your body produce more of both.

1. Buy a light box. This is also called a light therapy lamp, phototherapy lamp, or sun lamp. “Light therapy is important, because it’s the lack of sunlight that triggers the brain shift in chemistry,” says Mary Ellen. If you don’t want to invest in a lamp, try putting your desk near a window for natural sunlight, although it’s less effective than light therapy.

2. Stick to a sleep routine. So many of us take sleep for granted, but a good night’s sleep can be a tremendous defense against stress. “Limit your access to screentime before bed. Go to bed and wake up around the same time, even on weekends. In general, experts recommend you don’t disrupt your sleep pattern more than 30 minutes,” says Mary Ellen.

3. Double down on nutrition. “When there’s a lack of sunlight, we often crave carbs and sugar,” says Mary Ellen. “Be mindful about the meals you give yourself. Eat protein at each meal and boost your fruits and veggies.”

4. While you’re at it, focus on Vitamin D. Vitamin D plays an important role in regulating seratonin and melatonin, among other health benefits. Your body uses sunshine to make it — which makes winter a challenge. Get it in other ways, like supplements and diet. “Try Vitamin-D-fortified foods like orange juice,” suggests Mary Ellen.

5. Bundle up. It sounds obvious, but sometimes we forget: ”Staying warm actually affects your mood!” says Mary Ellen. “Wear cozy, comfy, warm clothes. And invest in a really good pair of mittens and boots.”

6. Head outdoors. Once you’ve bundled up, take yourself out into the elements — even if it’s just walking to the corner and back. “One of the best things for winter wellness is to actually get outside. Ten minutes of fresh air and sunlight can really change your mood,” says Mary Ellen.

7. Get your heart rate up. Beyond physical health, research shows that exercise is key to mental health. When the winter blues are getting you down, some cardio can lift you up. Find an activity you enjoy, whether that’s a Zumba class or snowshoeing, and schedule it into your week.

8. Set aside time to stretch or meditate. “I find that having structure within my day to go to my yoga mat and either physically move or just meditate is very helpful to my winter mood,” says Mary Ellen. “Things like yoga, tai chi and meditation can be a counterpoint to those feelings of depression and lack of energy.”

9. Try something new. “For some people, one way to manage stress is start something new. Start a new hobby or join a new group,” says Mary Ellen. “Join a book club — it’s sedentary, but it’s social!”

10. Notice what else helps you manage stress. “Some people manage stress through talking; other people, through journaling. Some people manage it through physical movement; for others, it helps to be really still and meditate. Identifying what works for you is so important,” says Mary Ellen.

> Read: How (and why) to start a gratitude practice

3 ways the course

Habit change isn’t easy at any time of year. That’s especially true when you’re struggling with a double dose of stress and winter blues. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind.

1. Remind yourself of your “why.” “Think, ‘I’m going to do this because it’s going to make me feel better for the rest of the day or week,’” says Mary Ellen. Try to be patient too: Even if you don’t feel an energy boost right away, trust that your efforts will pay off soon.

2. Think small. “You can’t say ‘I’m going to do all 10 of these things every day,’” says Mary Ellen. “Choose two that are most appealing and incorporate them into your life. Then choose another two.”

3. Ask for help. “If you’re feeling very deep symptoms of winter blues, seek assistance,” says Mary Ellen. “Talk to your doctor. Try therapy to identify ways to cope and help you figure out your negative thought patterns to change some of your mindset.”

Finally, remember that you can notice real benefits from even simple changes — like choosing a seat by the window on a sunny day.

“Try small, manageable changes,” says Mary Ellen, “those things that make you think, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

Do you need help working through the stress of caring for someone with a serious illness? HopeHealth can help. Contact us at at (888) 528-9077 or Information@HopeHealthCo.org.

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