6 Ways to Survive the Winter

It’s snow secret that winter sucks. It brings a blizzard of unwanted feelings to those of us who suffer with depression. While the title of this post may seem lighthearted and rings like a sleighbell, don’t be sled to the wrong conclusion. “Winter Blues” are a slippery slope that can easily become an avalanche and bury us.

OK, done with the puns. Seriously, whether caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder, heightened sensitivity to change in seasons common with Bipolar disorder, a Depressive Disorder that gets worse as the days grow short and cold, or simply bad associations with “the most wonderful time of the year”, winter depression is a very real experience for millions of people each year, and it is a serious topic.

I live in New England, and winter is the time of the year for increased symptoms for those of us living with mental health struggles. I am no exception to this rule. The days are shortened and it’s often dark only an hour after I get out of work. It’s cold and windy, and often the roads are slick with snow or completely frozen, making travel difficult or impossible. Staying indoors is more appealing than it is in the warmer months, and the blankets and comfort of a bed are even more alluring than normal. All of these facts contribute to a lack of motivation and an increase in depressive symptoms for me, and many others.

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This is my cat, The Lord Commander Jon Snow, refusing to come inside despite the fact that he’s clearly miserable. Don’t be like Jon.

Winter is here in northern Vermont, and, much like my beautiful cat’s namesake in the Night’s Watch, I’m bracing myself for the coming onslaught and trying to prevent myself from joining the legion of the walking dead.

In the past, I’ve simply fallen into the helplessness and hopelessness of the winter months. I always know it’s coming, but I never take steps to preempt any of the difficulties ahead. I’m usually resigned to the fact that winter is also Depression Season for me. This year, though, I’m trying something new. I’m planning ahead. In the spirit of trying to survive the next 5 months without falling into a deep hibernation, I have some specific strategies I intend to use this winter that I’d like to share with you. This is a strategy list I’ve been compiling these last few weeks. I’m hoping it’s helpful to all of us.

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Isolation is Bad

For me, it is far too easy to cut people out of my life. At the height of depressive episodes, I’ve gone longer than a week without leaving my apartment save one trip to the store for toilet paper. This did not even occur in the winter. And we all know it’s far easier to stay inside when it’s cold, snowy, iced over, and dark outside. This winter, I am forcing myself to make plans with friends I know will make me keep them in an attempt to stay ahead. It’s key to have friends and/or family that you know will hold you accountable for keeping the plans that you make. Personally, I’m connecting with friends who also struggle in the winter, and making a sort of “Accountability Buddy” system. We are all aware that winter is the hardest of the seasons for all of us, and that we need to make sure that we see each other frequently to avoid falling into the trap of a near-complete lack of meaningful human interaction.

 

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Get Light Exposure When You Can

Letting light into our lives is important when battling depression, and I don’t just mean the metaphoric light. Actual, real, UV rays like we get from sunlight are very important in combating depressive episodes. Some people use light boxes for this. But light boxes can be expensive. I certainly don’t have the disposable income to get one. So, my plan is to go outside. I know, I know. It’s cold and miserable. In the area of Vermont in which I live, at least a few times a year we get “frostbite warnings” which advise all of us chilly citizens not to be outside with any exposed skin for longer than 15 minutes at a time to avoid getting frostbite. Around February, negative temperatures are common occurrences. I believe that the lowest temperature I’ve ever seen is -35 fahrenheit  with a wind chill factor of -50. So, I don’t say “go outside” lightly. My plan is 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes on my lunch break, and 10 minutes right after work. A minimum of 30 minutes of light exposure is recommended, so that’s my goal. If going outside is too intimidating of a task, or it really is just too cold, I’ll sit by windows as often as possible. In my understanding, anything helps.

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Find a New Hobby or Build on an Existing One

Personally, I need activities to occupy my time and mind when I am home, especially when my daughter is with her father. I enjoy playing guitar, reading, and writing. As you can see, mine are pretty exclusively indoor, but there are fantastic outdoor hobbies one could have to get through the winter and get that light exposure and fresh air – snowboarding, skiing, snow shoeing, snow sculpting, etc. These things do not appeal to me, but they may to you, so I’m listing them. This winter, I’ll likely be focusing on expanding on my current hobbies rather than picking up a new one. While I love watching sports and sci-fi, I’m going to try to limit that and focus more on the hobbies that engage my mind. I know that staring at a screen and getting sucked into a new show tends to fuel my desire to isolate, and is therefore counterproductive. Whatever your current hobbies, though, make sure you have at least one or two you can focus on, or, if you don’t have any, pick something you’ve always wanted to learn to do and give it a go!

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Make Plans for Spring/ Summer

When the winter has really got you down, think about what’s to come. When I’m depressed, I try to remind myself that it will pass. It always does. I’m going to apply that same philosophy to winter in general. When the days are dark and cold and miserable, I’m going to think of all the things I’ll do once it’s warm and light again. My favorite parts about the warmer months are hiking, bonfires, swimming, taking day trips, and going to Boston. Planning for these things builds a sense of excitement and anticipation. It’s also a fantastic distraction technique. Googling places which I can visit in a day, trails I can hike and explore, and planning nights full of barbecue, bonfires, and laughter with friends and family will, in theory, help keep my mind off the dreary cold.

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Find Someone to Help

If you’re so inclined, find somewhere to volunteer. Helping others and positively contributing to our respective communities can increase our sense of self worth while also providing a tangible distraction from our own depression and getting us out of the house. Honesty time: I’m not sure if I’m going to use this trick. I’ll likely have my hands full with work, my daughter, and the rest of the techniques on this list, but I can see the potential in using it as a coping skill, which is why I’m adding it to the list. Look into local nursing homes, food shelves, soup kitchens, youth mentoring programs, or hospitals for volunteer opportunities. Or even just be there for a friend or family member who’s struggling as well. If you choose that option, though, be sure to do so with healthy boundaries in place.  

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Find Comfort

Winter is cold. Once you’ve gotten your sunshine for the day, it’s actually really beneficial to your health to stay warm. (And not just to avoid hypothermia or frostbite.) After the tasks of the day are done, indulge in those comfy blankets, put the heat up if you can, if you’re lucky enough to have a wood stove, sit next to the fire with a nice, warm cup of tea. Find some comfortable fuzzy socks. Curl up with a book or a favorite show. Everything in balance. Music is a huge part of my life, so, while I’m in comfy clothes and blankets and relaxing with tea, sometimes I like to listen to music instead of watching or reading something. I have a playlist specifically for when I’m feeling depressed. It has upbeat, positive songs that also validate my feelings. One of my go to albums when I’m having a hard day and I want to get out of my head is “Positive Songs for Negative People” by Frank Turner. He populates my depression playlist, along with Indigo Girls, Modest Mouse, Alanis Morissette, Third Eye Blind, Goo Goo Dolls, Bastille, Linkin Park, and The Lumineers, among others. (Judge away if you’re so inclined. I like it, and that’s the point – find the music that lifts you up and listen to that.) The idea is to find things that comfort you and use them! 

TO PUN IT UP: 

  • Don’t ICE-OLATE
  • Keep those days merry and bright (with light)
  • Slide into a new hobby or brush off an old one
  • Think of The Most Warm-iful Time of the Year
  • Help dig out a neighbor
  • Chill out, stay comfy!

OH! And don’t turn a cold shoulder to my winter pun-derland.

There it is! Six ways you can beat the winter blues! Do you have any strategies that didn’t make the list? Please leave them in the comments below or hop over to Facebook or Tweet me @paradichotomy. Let’s share tips and tricks with each other to make sure that we all enjoy this winter as much as possible or, at least, survive it!

NOTE: This list is preemptive. If you find yourself in a rough situation, check out these other tips for getting through: Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse) and Grounding Techniques. And, of course, if you’re worried that you or a loved one may be at risk of self harm, call 911 or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

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