The shorter and drearier days of winter can throw off our circadian rhythms, disrupting our normal routines. Especially if we are experiencing difficulties with work or family, it is key to put in a little extra effort to maintain our mental health and continue to show up fully for our loved ones this time of year. Below, I offer avenues for cultivating a healthy mind and coping with stress this winter.
1. Take up a hobby
Sticking to a hobby for fun, free from self-judgement, is a healthy outlet that can also offer a sense of accomplishment. But you may wonder, where do I begin? This National Hobby Month, take these tips (adapted from nationaltoday.com) for incorporating a new activity to enrich your days:
- Don’t do it alone. Enlist a friend or start a club (text message groups and online platforms may be useful) around the hobby of your choice. Whether it’s embroidery, coffee roasting, making art, running, or meditating, there are others looking for the same who can share your joy in personal growth and help you to avoid taking yourself too seriously.
- Find a teacher or a class. If you are looking to learn new techniques, like playing an instrument or working with clay, finding a class or a teacher can help you achieve technical proficiency sooner and hold you accountable.
- Try something brand new. Maybe you dabbled in sewing before, but the machine has been sitting in the closet for an unspeakable number of years. Instead of forcing yourself to do something you’ve already tried and failed to fall in love with, consider trying something completely new. As a novice, you will likely be less prone to self-criticism.
2. Cultivate emotional agility
For those who work in healthcare or other caring professions, or who are caregivers for loved ones, every day presents emotional challenges. We strive to balance self-preservation with empathy, but at some point, we tend to become overwhelmed and take the easy way out by putting up defensive emotional armor. This only gets worse if we feel even more sadness during the winter months.
To help you cope with the emotional difficulties, make this winter your season to learn about and start cultivating emotional agility. Simply put, emotional agility is the practice of allowing yourself to experience a range of emotions (sometimes conflicting emotions) without being incapacitated by them.
To work on emotional agility, here are four steps offered by Harvard Business Review (HBR):
- Recognize your patterns. When you become overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions, simply take note of it in the moment. “Humans are psychologically able to take this helicopter view of private experiences,” the authors explain. This is a simple mindfulness practice: recognize that you’re having racing thoughts or emotions.
- Label your thoughts and emotions. The authors recommend adding “I am having the thought that…” or “I am feeling some emotion about…” in your mind as you note what is happening to you. This helps you to see them with more compassion.
- Accept them. Rather than trying to control or stop your thoughts or emotions, just accept them. Apply your curiosity, noticing what you are experiencing.
- Act on your values. “…unhook yourself from your difficult thoughts and emotions,” the authors write, and you will be free to act in line with your values. Slowing down and following these steps can allow you to behave how you want to, not how you are compelled to by emotions.
Emotional agility is a practice, and an ongoing pursuit. You won’t get it right 100% of the time. But you can begin learning about and intentionally practicing it today. The decision not to try to armor myself from experiencing emotions has made a huge difference in my personal well-being and professional satisfaction.
3. Practice present moment awareness
When we are focused on future concerns, or past mistakes, we are cheating the present moment. These concerns may look like wondering what will happen with the next treatment steps, worry about death, or dwelling on past issues with a sick patient or loved one.
To practice present moment awareness, focus your awareness on the task at hand, even if what you’re doing is as simple as brushing your teeth. You can be mindful while filling out paperwork, driving, or talking with loved ones. Make sure you are only doing one thing, at one time. (That may include silencing any devices that could interrupt you, where possible.) Studies have shown that mindfulness helps you better handle stress and improve your ability to concentrate.
I know present-moment awareness is most challenging in hard times. But it is a powerful step toward making the most of your precious time with loved ones. And if you are a healthcare provider, this practice will help you to engage with your patients and support your emotional agility.
4. Put your thoughts on paper
Journaling is a powerful stress management technique, proven to improve your overall health. In my experience, writing can help you to clarify your purpose, motivating you to be more mindful about how you conduct your personal and professional life. Begin a simple journaling practice—even a line or two a day—to reap those benefits and help you weather the seasons of life. This PsychCentral article offers some practical tips for getting started.
I began writing about my personal experiences as a way to process the changes I’d experienced with my sister’s illness; articulating these feelings gave me perspective and completely changed how I practice, and I now spend a large portion of my time advocating for compassion in medicine. My journaling practice was a powerful force in helping me to clarify my mission and begin this work.
5. Take steps to handle seasonal feelings of sadness
SAD, or “seasonal affective disorder,” is a kind of depression that appears during the winter months, when darker days affect our circadian rhythms. If you struggle with winter-pattern seasonal depression, there are some simple techniques for managing your symptoms this winter—many of which could be helpful for lifting your mood even if you have not been diagnosed with SAD:
- Eat a nutritious diet; aim to get vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids, and folic acid through the foods you eat.
- Practice activities for relaxation and/or managing stress, such as meditation, journaling, or exercising.
- Consider light therapy, a surprisingly effective SAD treatment that involves using a home light box device to mimic the summer light levels we lack during shorter winter days.
- Create opportunities to connect with others in order to stave off loneliness.
- Take a walk outside every day. Spending time outdoors has numerous documented benefits for your mood and ability to concentrate.
- Visit with a therapist.
- Talk with your physician about an antidepressant medication.
- Avoid alcohol.
For immediate help and referrals to services for mental health or substance use, you may contact the SAMHSA hotline by calling 1-800-662-4357.
About Joseph Stern, MD, author of Grief Connects Us
My name is Dr. Joseph Stern. I am the author of the memoir Grief Connects Us: A Neurosurgeon’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and Compassion, which documents my journey as a neurosurgeon learning how to meet my patients with compassion in a field notorious for neutrality. I invite you to join the conversation, explore more resources, or learn more about my book.