We’ve entered the “dark ages” as the midshipmen at the Naval Academy say — the weeks between Christmas break and Spring break when everyone turns a pasty white and the sidewalks are full of ugly slush. The lack of sunlight and the shorter days don’t help the pursuit of sanity. However, if you approach this time of year with a dose of creativity and enthusiasm, you need not fall down the rabbit hole of depression.
Here are some ideas to keep your mood sunny when the weather is anything but.
1. Go to the light.
I start using my light lamp in October. However, in January, this fixture becomes my best friend. Bright-light therapy — involving sitting in front of a fluorescent light box that delivers an intensity of 10,000 lux — can be as effective as antidepressant medication for mild and moderate depression and can yield substantial relief for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Technically, we are moving towards more light every day in January, which is great news. But my circadian rhythm — the body’s internal biological clock that governs brain wave activity and hormone production — gets really out of whack following the holidays. I think it’s the cumulative lack of sunlight since September. So bright light therapy becomes an important part of every January and February day.
2. Clean and Declutter
I always feel like a massive hypocrite when I talk about decluttering and cleaning, but the evidence is in: messy environments affect your psyche. A 2011 study conducted by researches at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that, when your surroundings are cluttered, multiple stimuli in your visual field compete for your attention, making it difficult for you to focus and limiting your brain’s ability to process information.1 Another study conducted through UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families showed that clutter affects our mood and mental health.2
January and February present perfect opportunities to at least start the process. Whenever I muster up the courage to begin to declutter, I feel the therapeutic effects. I think it has something to do with detaching yourself from the past and moving forward.
3. Get Creative
The winter months are also a good time to try a craft, whether that be pottery or painting or woodworking. Like cleaning, there are studies that have documented the therapeutic value of art therapy. For starters, in a 2016 study published in the journal Art Therapy, 39 participants made art using collage material, modeling clay, and/or markers. After they completed their work, they were invited to share any aspect of their work or their experiences verbally with the group. They were also asked to share a brief written description of their experience. Researchers measured cortisol levels before and after making art and found a significant reduction in cortisol after making art.3
In the last year, I’ve tried my hand at a variety of art forms to express my feelings, and I can attest to the power of art to access and heal difficult emotions.
4. Give Back
Ghandi once wrote that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Positive psychologists like University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman and Dan Baker, Ph.D., director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, believe that a sense of purpose — committing oneself to a noble mission — and acts of altruism are strong antidotes to depression.
You need not associate yourself with a specific cause or foundation. Sometimes a dollar and a kind word to a homeless person can make a great impact. So can calling up a friend you know is going through a rough patch. Anything we do that turns our gaze outward is going to help bolster our mood.
5. Be Around People
Winter weather gives you a great excuse to isolate yourself. Of course you don’t want to go out. It’s nasty outside. But isolation is only going to worsen your symptoms of depression and anxiety. Take it from the Queen of Isolation. “We have all known the long loneliness,” writes Dorothy Day, “and we have found that the answer is community.”
When we surround ourselves with others, there is a chance that we will forget about our problems for a few seconds and hear what someone else is saying. There’s also a possibility that we will discover that we are not alone in our struggle. On some days, that is enough to lessen our suffering.
6. Don’t Forget the Omega-3’s
During the winter, I’m religious about stocking a Noah’s-Ark-supply of Omega-3 capsules in my medicine cabinet because leading physicians at Harvard Medical School confirmed the positive effects of this natural, anti-inflammatory molecule on emotional health. I treat my brain like royalty — hoping that it will be kind to me in return — so I fork over about $30 a month for the Mac Daddy of the Omega-3s, capsules that contain 70 percent EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). One 500mg softgel capsule meets the doctor-formulated 7:1 EPA to DHA ratio, needed to elevate and stabilize mood.
7. Move Your Body
We’ve known for decades that exercise can decrease depression symptoms,4 but in a 2016 study by the University of California Davis Medical Center found that exercise increased the level of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, both of which are depleted in the brains of people with depression and anxiety. The researchers evaluated 38 healthy volunteers who rode stationary bikes at a vigorous rate — about 85 percent of their maximum heart rate — for up to 20 minutes in three sessions, measuring GABA and glutamate levels in the brain immediately before and after the workouts.
Post-exercise scans showed significant neurotransmitter increases in parts of the brain that regulate emotions and cognitive functions. Participants who had exercised three or four times in the week leading up to the study had longer lasting effects. The study showed that aerobic exercise activates the pathways that replenish these neurotransmitters, allowing the brain to communicate with the body.5
Don’t worry about hiking 10 miles in the snow. Simply put on some groovy tunes and climb up and down your stairs for 15 minutes. The important thing is to move.
- McMains, S., & Kastner, S. (2011, January 11). Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(2): 587-597. Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/2/587.long [↩]
- Feuer, J. (2012, July 1). The Clutter Culture. UCLA Magazine. Retrieved from http://magazine.ucla.edu/features/the-clutter-culture/ [↩]
- Kaimal, G., Ray, K., & Muniz, J. (2016, April 2). Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making. Art Therapy, 33(2): 74-80. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5004743/ [↩]
- Stathopoulou, G., Powers, M.B., Berry, A.C., Smits, J.A.J., & Otto, M.W. (2006, May 30). Clinical Psychology Science and Practice., 13(2): Exercise Interventions for Mental Health: A Quantitative and Qualitative Review. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-2850.2006.00021.x [↩]
- Maddock, R.J., Casazza, G.A., Fernandez, D.H., & Maddock, M.I. (2016, February 24). Acute Modulation of Cortical Glutamate and GABA Content by Physical Activity. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(8): 2449-2457. Retrieved from: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/8/2449.short [↩]