Posted by Michael Brunner, Ph.D.
December 16, 2014
I grew up in New Jersey and lived in Virginia for about 10 years before moving to Minnesota. I notice the change of seasons more in Minnesota than when I lived further south and, in particular, I’m sensitive to having more hours of darkness each day. In an odd sort of way, I’ve sometimes found myself looking forward to the Winter Solstice — the shortest day of the year — because it means that each and every day after that will have more hours of daylight. As darkness settles in this time of year, I find my energy slipping, my desire for calories (think fats and sweets) increasing, the motivation to get rolling each day being more of a challenge and my mood becoming more somber.
To me, it’s interesting how my biology is so strongly affected by the change of seasons. It’s almost like I’m wired to hibernate even though I’m obligated to continue working and living my life as if nothing has changed. I know that I’m not alone in my experience. Many people report changes to how they feel this time of year, and they usually report that the changes aren’t always positive. So, this is our challenge — how can we be healthy and happy even though our primordial beings are telling us to shut it down, conserve energy and hunker down in order to come out on the other side of winter alive and ready to go?
I’ve developed a philosophy of living to help me enjoy the winter months and counteract the winter blahs along with some strategies that also happen to be supported by research. Hopefully you’ll find a couple of these ideas useful to you too.
- Have an optimistic and positive attitude. Since moving to Minnesota, I’ve committed myself to finding ways to enjoy the winter. To me, this means that I need to get outdoors and enjoy all that Minnesota offers. I make a genuine effort to appreciate where I am now as opposed to grumbling about how awful the winters are — not an easy task some days. I focus my attention on the beauty of crisp fall mornings and the silence that envelops those days with freshly fallen snow. By looking for the good and positive in experiences, a person is more likely to see them.
- Be active. I resolved to learn how to cross country ski when I moved to Minnesota. Each winter I learn a little bit more about how to do this. Aside from the physical and emotional benefits that exercise provides, I get to enjoy the great and beautiful Minnesota outdoors, and it helps me to keep a positive attitude (see No. 1 above).
- Stay connected. I spend time with my family, especially making a point to gather for dinner as often as possible during the week. Being and connecting with others is a proven mood- and energy-booster, which reduces stress and enhances health and feelings of well-being.
- Eat healthy. My body craves calories, particularly after I go for a run or ski. I’ve noticed that my craving for high calorie foods increases dramatically this time of year. Personally, I make it a point to reach for an apple or eat healthy protein, such as nuts, as often as possible, but I’m particularly attentive to this during the fall and winter due to the “hibernation” signals my brain and body are receiving. Healthy foods also restore the body and help with energy and clarity of thinking.
- Sleep, sleep, sleep. I make sure I get enough sleep to restore and rejuvenate, but not so much that I am checking out from life or altering my routine too dramatically. Like I said, increased darkness seems to slow the body down. So, I have to both honor this with rest but counteract the urge to do so excessively by remaining engaged with life in Minnesota.
- De-stress and relax. Over the years I’ve learned of the importance of working through conflict in relationships. Resolving negative feelings, especially in relationships, is one very important way to feel better emotionally, but it also promotes physical health by enhancing the body’s immune response. Meditation also promotes health by improving mental focus and decreasing negative mental states, such as anxiety and depression. Hobbies are another way to engage the mind in a focused way and increase feelings of well-being and accomplishment.
I believe that Minnesota is a wonderful place to live and be. Sometimes — and this time of year in particular — I have to work harder at staying positive and engaged with the world around me. If you feel this way too, I’d like to encourage you to stay healthy. Not only is this just a good thing to do, but it will also support your efforts in recovery.