Self-care Tips for Winter

Date: 12/10/2021

We’ve all heard of the winter blues, and even though I love a great azure ensemble in December, I also know it can be a difficult season for positive mental health. 

I think this is even more true nowadays, as we come to the end of two brutally long and unusual years. Many of us have already been cooped up inside, away from our friends, and don’t really see the winter as bringing the peace of mind the holidays once promised. Others still have lost loved ones, whereby the wintertime holidays become a sad reminder of the past in addition to the regular old winter blues.  

Mental health professionals across the world also speak to a trend of increased symptoms of sadness, depression, insomnia, and anxiety around the holidays, or as long winters progress. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition that produces depressive symptoms, has also been tied to short days, reduced social connection, and possibly lower levels of light exposure throughout winter months. 

I know my own energy stores are at their lowest when the days grow short. This was even more true when I lived in New York and Ohio, where the seasonal blues were common anytime the air grew cold. That’s why I wanted to share with you my go-to winter-time self-care tips for positive mental health!

My Top 6 Mental Health Tips to Prep for Winter

1. Create a mental health ‘first-aid’ kit before you go into hibernation

Every time the fall season starts to close and winter begins, I start to notice a lot of changes in my own mood, as well as that of my close friends and family. 

Knowing this, and seeing the pattern a lot in others…I have learned that building a winter mental health first aid kit can be a really creative way to prepare for ‘off’ days in advance, and to consciously prioritize your mental health. Plus it’s like a little surprise from ‘summer you’ for when you’re feeling stuck or low in the wintertime.

Of course, your own kit is going to look different than anyone else’s: the things that make you happy are completely unique to you. For a little inspiration though, here are just a few items I suggest you put in your kit, but don’t hesitate to get creative and make it fun: 

A small list of your favorite songs + a set of headphones (make sure not to use AirPods!) 

Your favorite film

The phone number of your go-to person, and/or mental health therapist 

A letter that you wrote to yourself, or a letter written by someone you love

Treats, tea, or a small gift-card to your favorite restaurant, bistro, or coffee shop

Anything which stimulates the senses toward the positive: soft, pleasurable fabrics, brightly-coloured items, a bottle of your favorite essential oil

Some photos of things, pets, or people who make you happy

Something small to occupy your hands (a stone, a coin, a clicky pen) – this can sometimes help focus racing thoughts

A small token or item that is sentimental to you, or which represents a good memory or time in your life

What gives you a boost is bound to change, so make sure you keep it updated just like you would any other health first aid kit! (You might even add a few Band-Aids, Advil, or other vitamins for a little physical health boost as well). 

You can also make your kit as big or as small as you want! Make one to carry with you, or keep it in a safe spot at home, and be inspired to add more to it along the way.

2. Check in with what your body needs all winter long

This one is key. Mental health is tied to the body as much as physical health is tied to the mind. Some of us even hold our trauma and tension in our bodies…in our shoulders, jaw, and hips. In wintertime, dry, cold temperatures can have a huge effect on our bodily functions, so it’s a very important time to check-in with your body every chance you get. 

That’s because when we are physically in flux our moods are affected. You’ve probably experienced ‘hanger’ (hunger + anger), and that’s just what I mean. When we don’t pay attention to what our body needs, it can put us in a completely different mood. In those states, we can never know if we are really mentally unwell, or if we are just lacking something physically. 

When we look at mental health in winter for example, it’s important to check in with what we may be missing. We already know how less light exposure affects sleep schedules and puts off our circadian rhythm; it follows that dark winter months would cause a shift in sleep. If you are feeling anxious and irritable in winter, it might be simply a matter of allowing yourself more rest to get ‘back to normal’.  

Here are some of the other ways I check in on my body during the cold winter months. Usually, I’ll ask questions, and follow-up with real and honest answers about whether I’ve been following through to give my body all the basics: 

Have I been keeping to a regular sleep schedule?

When was the last time I bundled up and went outside? 

Have I been staying active?

 Have I been eating and drinking well this week?

 Do I feel relaxed or tense anywhere in my body? 

 Have I gotten enough vitamins and sunlight? (try a sunlamp!)

Ultimately, this practice can work to release blockages in your body so you can focus on the mental barriers that arise throughout even the coldest winter days. Once you’ve addressed these, and if you’re still feeling off, then you know there’s more to the picture than just what your body is telling you. 

Lena’s Tip: If you find you have extra trouble when the days get darker, I really recommend you try a sunlamp! Psychologists and other medical professionals have relied on light therapy for more than a century, and its effects on mood have been proven time and again. I love this lamp for my room—it’s compact, and I can adjust the brightness depending on my needs. It really works!

3. Cultivate mindfulness and self-generosity from December onward

You may already know, but in the last year I’ve started to speak pretty regularly about physical health. I’ve spent over 20 years taking care of my body in the midst of chronic illness; but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the physical is very much only half the battle. 

And although there are a ton of super-important things when it comes to practicing positive mental health in the wintertime, I think what is key are mindfulness, and (self)generosity. First, let’s talk mindfulness. 

For me, mindfulness has always been about intention. It means taking the chaos of our thoughts and observing it to notice patterns. Once we see these patterns, it becomes a lot easier to get in touch with ourselves about what’s really going on. 

Mindfulness can also be seen as awareness. We become aware of what changes our moods and alters our perceptions, and can then steer ourselves away from negative associations and into positive thought habits. That’s why meditation is so popular: it is a way to quiet ourselves and watch the inner workings of our brain. 

For example, you might feel super stressed after driving through sleet and snow, or get really anxious after coming home from a holiday party. The trick is to recognize that your mental state is being affected by a certain stimulus. Then, it’s much easier to find a way to return to that ‘inner voice’ whenever you are feeling out of control, or ‘not like yourself’.  

In other words, once you get a handle on how you’re feeling (become mindful of what’s affecting you), you’ll be in a better position to take steps to reduce those feelings, and to find comfort.  

Winter is also a super-great time to pursue mindfulness. With more focus and less distraction in colder months (fewer social visits, perhaps), it’s possible to finally build up the good physical and mental health habits and routines you’ve been thinking about—maybe you want to drink more water and less coffee. Maybe you want to start a bullet journal….Nows the time!  

Here are a few of the other tricks and tips I’ve collected as I’ve had to face many exhausted winter days. They help me become less distracted, and become more mindful of how my moods are affected by what’s going on around me:

Change up your screen time routine. Something as simple as waiting an hour in the morning before you even touch your phone (or an hour before bed) can give you more free space to reflect on your mental health. 

Watch social media and news intake. When we are constantly inundated with new information, there’s no time to process. Our mind feels like it’s holding onto too much! Try setting aside the phone or news for full days or even a week and see how that affects your mood and stress levels. Take the time to focus on you and your mental health!

 Read and listen to uplifting content. Contentment doesn’t just appear out of thin air. We have to practice at it. Surrounding yourself with positive voices of inspiration, even a fun animated short film can be a big relief when the winter blues set in, and can even get us excited for the holidays!  

Give yourself space for YOU things. This is a moment each day where you choose to do an activity that is something you love, with yourself! Don’t know what that is? The best part is getting in touch with what makes you happy. And these private moments – from a hot bath, to a short walk or using your hands to create –  can make all the difference in a stressful day. It’s a way to say: hey, I am in touch with my joy. It’s kind of a ‘flow’ state where we lose ourselves doing something we want, with no one looking over our shoulder to tell us we’re wrong! 

Basically any activity in which you find space to be calm, content, and which provides a ‘rest’ period where you are free of any stress or anxiety can become a mindfulness activity. So long as you keep in touch with your inner self, and recognize what alters your mental state for the better, or for the worse, you’re being mindful!

4. Acknowledge your emotions – even the hard stuff

Of course, we may not always like what we find when we become mindful of our habits, anxieties, and things that bring us grief or sadness—especially in winter when we may be away from our usual support systems.  

That’s where self-generosity comes in. I think when it comes to mental health and mindfulness in the wintertime, there is a huge space for generosity in general, but more so for generosity to ourselves.  

We must remind ourselves that it is OK to feel vulnerable, low, or angry—just as much as it’s okay to feel happy, excited, or romantic. In short, we must acknowledge our emotions…even the hard stuff. We can’t run from difficult emotions forever, and many professionals recognize these days how important it is to feel through our emotions instead of bottling them up. 

This is particularly true right now, says Mélanie Joanisse, a clinical psychologist, as we continue to face a radically shifting social and cultural landscape, and as we come upon the long dark winter months. 

Thankfully, simple generosity to others, and to ourselves can help mitigate some of the stresses that seem to pile up around the holidays. For instance, you can focus on charity and giving around the holidays, can volunteer, or acknowledge traditions that may have changed with strength. You can embrace winter, find the beauty in it, and remember that you are only human. It’s okay to lose ground every once in a while. 

If you’re still looking for ways to be generous to yourself, and to others, you might even want to do what I do: start a gratitude journal to appreciate all the generosity around you. 

You might have shovelled the driveway, taken the kids sledding, or paid off your Christmas gifts early. You might be thankful for your new blouse, the love of your friends, or the smell of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. 

Whatever they are: write them. Then, when you’re feeling less generous, go back to them for one of the quickest mental refreshes I know. Share compliments or happy moments with friends, and remember to take it slow. There’s no rush. You’re doing great!

5. Create positive action through connection

One of the biggest drivers of low mental health in winter is a lack of human connection. Worse yet, since we’ve been away from friends and family now for some time, it can be even harder to rekindle those needed relationships once snow starts falling and winds start blowing again. 

Thankfully, pushing yourself to get a little human connection has big payoffs. You don’t even necessarily need to leave the comfort of your home space to do so—particularly since the internet has so many incredible communities online to choose from! 

You can stay connected through forums and social media communities, you can schedule virtual interactions with friends, and even plan online ‘events’ where several people get together to catch up! In fact, my instagram account was created in response to a severely low mental health point in my life, and since then I’ve managed to create such long-lasting connections…I would recommend the same for anyone–even if you just create one for yourself and your own creativity. 

On the other hand, if you don’t mind getting out of the house, or if you are surrounded by family and friends closeby, then this is also a great time to help yourself by helping others. You can even show your thanks to parents and caregivers who have been a big help to you–these are people who almost never take time for themselves, so I’m sure the gratitude or connection would be very welcome. 

Another tip to connect with others? Find ways to engage in play. Getting connected is about finding the freedom to be yourself, and to be as honest as possible about where you are. You can alleviate mental burdens by sharing with others, and sometimes we don’t even have to share to get the mood boost we need.

Really, by setting up room for playing games, doing physical activities as a group, or just being kids again and laughing together online, we can spark connections between new friends and old, even in the dark of a long, cold winter!

6. Know when to ask for help, and then ask

This step is, for all intents and purposes, number one on the list for anyone who does suffer with diagnosed mental health conditions, or who suffers from any number of mental health symptoms without diagnosis. I never want to walk away from giving advice about mental health without addressing the fact that sometimes, you need to reach out for help

Remember, this list is meant as a supplement to help ward off winter blues. But if you have persistent symptoms beyond winter, whether it be from a professional over the long-term, a help line in an emergency, or a friend who is ready and willing to listen, if you are genuinely feeling over the edge and that your mental state is out of control, it’s time to reach out for help. Here are just a few resources to start:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Live Online Chat
  • 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746 at the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1-800-950-6264, 
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): (866) 615-6464. 

Now, if you aren’t really sure whether you’re at that point, there really is no harm in reaching out. It might be winter blues, but it could be something entirely different. Still, I know how difficult it can be to come to that decision, and to take action to ask. To help, here is a list from Harvard Health Education to guide you the next time you think you may need help. If you fit the descriptions below, reach out to one of the numbers above: 

  • You are in a depressed mood the majority of the day
  • You are moving either more slowly or are extra hyperactive during the days
  • You are feeling worthless or excessively guilty
  • Deceased interest in pleasure, or less attachment to activities you used to enjoy
  • Persistent thoughts of death, suicide, or of harming others

A happy winter, to your mental health

One thing it’s important to remember is that winter is only temporary. That this, too, shall pass. Even if we discover we do indeed suffer from SAD, or that the winter blues have their grip on us, we still have the power to prioritize our mental health! 

So stomp off your feet, get out of the cold, and get started. Use the tips above to create a mental health care kit, check in with your body, discover mindfulness & self-generosity, and stay connected with those you love. 

Together, these are the things that are certain to help you get through this next winter, until the blooms of spring arrive again!