I grew up outside of Detroit. A very different landscape from Alaska, for sure. There was lots of concrete and no mountains. So when I came to Alaska 30 years ago, it just about blew my mind! For the first time, I really understood what majestic looked like. And I fell in love with the place. What I failed to look at however, was the fine print so to speak. I wasn’t prepared for how the one, two punch of the cold and the dark would impact me physically and emotionally. During the dark and cold of winter, I’d notice changes in my functioning. My typical patience was often upended by feelings of irritability. My normally healthy diet was hijacked by cravings for carbs and sweets. And my usually get up and go attitude, would start leaning towards sleep, hibernate and rest. I had to learn ways to increase my resiliency and my positivity so I could stay on top of my best game all year long. Here are a few of the scientifically backed strategies that I use to help ward off the winter blues. I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to share some of the things you do to stay positive during these cold, cold winter days!
Light it up!
“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”
Alaskans are at higher risk for experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) than are folks who live closer to the equator. It is believed that this happens because the longer periods of darkness impact our natural circadian rhythm. Natural daylight increases the amount of Serotonin that we have in our bodies and this is a chemical that helps us feel good and promotes a sense of well-being. In the absence of light, our bodies produce more Melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sluggish and tired. Although we don’t know why, it seems that SAD effects women more than it does men. Symptoms of SAD include feelings of lethargy, depressed mood, loss of interest in things, sleep difficulties, appetite changes, and weight gain.
For many, using a SAD light (often called a happy light) is an easy fix. There are many different kinds of SAD lights available, and they all have in common the ability to produce a very high level of light intensity. Exposing oneself to this high intensity artificial light, seems to result in stimulating the brain to produce more Serotonin and less Melatonin. As with all recommendations, talk to your doctor first before trying this as people with vision problems or epilepsy may not respond well.
Happiness is a Mindset
“The most important trick to be happy is to realize that happiness is a choice that you make and a skill that you develop. You choose to be happy, and then you work at it. Its’ just like building muscles.”
Everybody says it… happiness is a choice, but how do we practice making this choice? What steps can we take every day to build our happiness muscles? What you need to know is that the brain is an organ that learns and changes based on its experience (what it pays attention to). That means, if you are resting your attention on things that bring up feelings of worry or hurt, anger or self criticism, loss, sadness or guilt, then you are shaping your brain towards being more unhappy or more anxious. However if you bring your attention to rest on things that are pleasant, such as physical pleasures or positive emotions or noticing positive traits such as good intentions or feelings of gratitude or compassion, then you are hardwiring happiness into the neural circuitry of your brain!
Rick Hansen, who wrote Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence talks about how our brains are Velcro for bad events (they stick to us) and Teflon for the good (they don’t stick) Unfortunately, our default network leans towards being negative. That means that our attention is designed to pull us towards focusing on real or potential problems in our life and we often slide right past the good stuff. The news outlets and media know this…headlines are rarely focused on good events and the bad news draws us in and often holds our attention. This negativity bias makes sense from an evolutionary point of view because staying on the lookout for trouble ultimately keeps us alive and kicking but it definitely can impact the quality of our life.
As Rick writes in his book, “The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to regularly take in the good.” The way to do this can be done in a few easy steps:
First, notice a positive experiences. It doesn’t have to be something grand, it could be as simple as appreciating having a roof over your head, flush toilets, drinkable water, the ability to speak or walk or the taste of chocolate. You can notice a positive feeling of connection with a loved one or the beauty of a tree or the stars, a smile from a co-worker or even something as simple and delicious as a nice relaxing breath. When we orient ourselves to the positive, we begin to see that there are many wonderful, miraculous and joyful experiences all around us, simply waiting for our attention.
The second step to increasing positive feelings, is to enhance or enrich the positive experience. This means, bringing the positive experience to life as fully as you can. Noticing where you feel the feeling in your body. As best you can, holding the positive feeling in your attention for 5 or 10 seconds or longer. It takes time for neural networks to grow and the more you activate this circuitry, the more quickly you will be changing your brain to be resiliently positive.
And lastly, the third step, is to really absorb the positivity into yourself. Allow the positive feelings to really sink in. As best you can, imagine the positive feelings permeating and resonating in and through your body. Perhaps you can imagine the positive feeling sinking into each and every cell.
Move the Body to Help the Mind
“Jogging is very beneficial. It’s good for your legs and your feet. It’s also very good for the ground. It makes it feel needed.”
Charles M. Schulz
We all know that exercise is good for us. But did you also know that exercise can have a positive effect on mood? For some people, exercise is as effective as an antidepressant pill! And it’s positive effect brings immediate changes to our body and mind! One of the things that happens when we exercise is the release of endorphins, which are the feel good chemicals. It can be hard to get into a habit of exercising regularly and one of the biggest obstacles we face is the beliefs we hold regarding exercise itself. We often end up with an “all or nothing” mindset about exercise. For example, we might think to ourselves that we need to get a workout in 5 days a week or work up a sweat for it to be effective. But in reality, the most important thing to remember about exercise is that it is always better to do something, even if it is small, than to do nothing. Even one minute of movement will be better than no movement at all. Simple things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going for a short, quick walk instead of sitting at the computer can be a great way to start. For some people, it helps to take a moment to reward yourself after exercising. Maybe you take yourself out for a cup of coffee afterwards, or emotionally giving yourself a pat on the back. It can also help to notice other rewards such as more energy, better sleep or clearer thinking. Noticing these positives can help to keep motivation and momentum going.
The Down Side to Sleep Deprived
“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”
We seem to be a culture that values being productive and getting things done. And since getting things done takes time, we often give up our sleep in order to meet this goal. And this is a big mistake. Sleep is vital to well being. Sleep is as important as diet and exercise. But often, we voluntarily give up this precious commodity for the sake of wanting to do other things.
Henry David Thoreau writes “Ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that symbolizes work ethic, or toughness, or some other virtue – but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self -respect.”
Sleep is so important, that losing sleep affects us on both an emotional and physical level. Memory difficulties, increased problems with thinking and cognitive processing, rising blood pressure, decreased immune function and increased appetite are a few of the consequences associated with sleep deprivation. Sleep can be problematic for those who are struggling with the winter blues. One of the symptoms of depression is insomnia. Unfortunately, the relationship between Insomnia and depression can quickly become a negative and vicious cycle….depression causing problems with sleep and problems with sleep worsening depression.
There are lots of good tips for improving sleep hygiene on the internet. Things such as going to bed and rising at around the same time every day, keeping the bedroom cool, dark and quiet, avoiding large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bed, getting exercise during the day and avoiding naps all can be helpful to getting good sleep. For folks who are struggling with falling asleep there are some easy tricks that may help with insomnia as written about by Tim Ferris in Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. Tim reports that one drink that may help induce sleep is honey mixed with apple cider vinegar. The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and 1 tablespoon of honey, stirred into 1 cup of hot water. He also recommends Yogi Soothing Caramel Bedtime Tea. Lastly he shared that if the above mentioned remedies don’t work, you may want to try California Poppy Extract. To keep on the safe side, please make sure you talk with your doctor before trying any suggested home remedies.