Here in the Chicago area, we’ve had a fairly mild winter. Sure we had a crazy few days of twenty below zero but that only lasted for a short time. Even though the temperatures haven’t been bad, the grey cloudy sky can leave you feeling down.
Many people get the “winter blues.” Scientifically speaking severe cases of this may be called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This affects an estimated 10 million Americans with women being diagnosed four times as often as men.
If you have symptoms severe enough to be clinically diagnosed or you are feeling down, it’s time to do some self-care. This is not an alternative to professional guidance from a psychologist or therapist, but honestly self-care is important for everyone.
Self-care doesn’t have to take long or cost a lot of money. Some self-care techniques only take five minutes and are completely free. While it’s nice to take vacations or do spa days, these little things may be more practical.
So, take time now to look at our biggest tips for taking care of yourself, and start implementing them for the rest of the winter. Maybe you will make a new habit that will serve you for the rest of your life!
Bringing awareness to the present moment, often done through awareness of your body and surroundings, is called grounding. Most of our worries are about the future or the past, so focusing on the here and now can be extremely helpful in dealing with stress.
Simply close your eyes and pay attention to your breath or look at your surroundings noticing the different sensory input you are experiencing. The key is to be intentional and slow down to notice your body’s experience.
For more directed grounding exercises check out the following.
- Box Breathing (also known as Four Square breathing)
- Basic Breathing for Stress Management (from @core360belt)
- Self-Compassion Meditations (with Kristen Neff)
We all know that meaningful social connections are good for your mental health, but did you know they make a huge impact on your physical health? Positive connections lead to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is often referred to as co-regulation of the nervous system and is the state where healing takes place.
So, connect with a friend...
- in person, if you are able
- with a video call so you can be face-to-face.
- through a phone call.
- by email and text.
And remember to set some time aside to focus on the people you have in your life on a daily basis. Having a meal, playing a quick game, reading a chapter of a book, or going for a walk together in the evening can be a great way to connect.
When we are connecting with others it is important to have healthy boundaries. It is a way to protect yourself and your relationships.
You may often go along with what others want without considering what is best for you. When we do this it not only drains us but can lead to resentment. You need a little margin, or you will find yourself overscheduled and overwhelmed.
Honor yourself by thinking through what you are willing to give; financially, physically, and even emotionally. After doing so, you may find that you need to learn how to say “no” to others without feeling guilty as well.
One of my friends decided to become more comfortable saying “no” by practicing at the checkout counter. When the cashier asked if she would like to round up her purchase she would say "no" even though it was uncomfortable. This was easier than saying “no” to people was close with, but it helped her grow into it.
Handling Chronic Stress
Stress is a part of life and can be good for you. When you are stressed it sharpens your senses and releases adrenaline that can help you handle the situation. But when stress becomes chronic, you will benefit from finding healthy ways to handle it.
Reframing the way you perceive stress is a valuable tool in reducing the impact of chronic stress. Shifting your perspective is not an easy thing to do, but it is often possible. This may look like taking a long view of a situation by asking yourself if the thing causing you stress will even matter in five years. It may mean accepting things the way they are.
Acceptance can be extremely difficult, but it can also be a really valuable tool for handling the stress you cannot change. Once we recognize that we can’t change the stress right now, we can stop fighting against it. This may involve grieving the fact that things aren't the way you'd like. Over time this process can lower stress levels.
You can find more ways to handle stress here.
Another important aspect of self-care is getting some movement in your day. It doesn't have to be a full exercise program, but intentionally adding movement to your day can be so beneficial. You may choose to:
- Walk somewhere instead of driving
- Take a movement break at work
- Make a phone call while walking or have a walking meeting
- Skip using a convenient tool or food processor to prepare or chop something, and do it yourself with a knife
- Carry your child instead of using a stroller
- Use the basket instead of a grocery cart
- Put on music and dance around your house instead of watching TV
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Walk on an incline
- Park further away at a store
Also, remember that movement doesn’t have to mean moving your body from one place to another. I would consider it “moving more” if your muscles are more engaged. For example, sitting on a stool would be moving more than lounging on a La-Z-Boy since your muscles will be more engaged to support your body.
Feeling gratitude activates the hypothalamus and floods your brain with the feel-good hormone dopamine. Studies have found gratitude decreases the prominent stress hormone cortisol. It also decreases blood pressure, while increasing heart rate variability.
By placing your attention on things that bring you pleasure, you can cultivate gratitude in an authentic way. They don’t need to be big things, even little things that bring you joy are worth celebrating.
For more ideas on gratitude check out Creating a Gratitude Practice.
Acknowledging Our Difficult Emotions
There is a reason for any emotion you are experiencing. It is important to accept both “good” and “bad” feelings. Fighting against difficult emotions can have a negative effect on your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It is important to allow yourself to lean into these painful emotions and accept them without judgment.
Difficult emotions tend to come like a wave. Let them wash over you and then pass on. Resisting them does not tend to be an effective way to handle these types of emotions and can often make them last longer.
The key is learning to lean into these emotions to the extent you are able to without it dysregulating your nervous system. If you find the intensity of the emotions is too much or you stay in these difficult emotions too long, you may want to reach out to a professional for some support.
There is no right or wrong way to do self-care. In fact, ideally, the focus will shift from what you decide to do and allow you just to be. What works for one person may not work for you. I'd love to hear what you are doing to take care of yourself this winter!