Power Through Winter with Self-Care

By: Julia Tehovnik, LPC

If you ask any Chicagoan about winter weather in the city, they'll likely give you similar answers: it's cold, it's windy, it's unpredictable, and it seems to drag on longer than it should. The days are shorter, it’s darker outside, and the skies seem as grey as the skyscrapers. The inconvenience of winter weather can be a reason to stay home in bed, where at least you know it’s warm. People in Chicago may be used to experiencing winter conditions for up to 8 months out of the year, but they may also be susceptible to feeling down, tired, or even depressed. WIth the cold weather comes the risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects nearly 10 million Americans.

SAD is more than just “winter blues” - it is a diagnosable depressive disorder listed in the DSM-5. The symptoms can be distressing and may negatively impact daily functioning. Some common symptoms seen in the winter months include oversleeping, fatigue, weight change, irritability, loss of interest, and withdrawing from social engagement. It is quite typical for individuals to experience some of these symptoms for a brief period when the seasons change, but be sure to talk to your doctor or reach out to a mental health professional if these symptoms persist for more than just a couple days.

Practicing self-care is one of the most important ways to manage seasonal depression. Taking time to focus on yourself and your own needs can lead to feeling refreshed, energized, and better prepared to face the challenges in you life. Some of these challenges are unavoidable and recurring, like a long daily commute or the inevitable shift in the weather when the seasons change. Self-care is crucial during the winter, but taking care of ourselves may require more of an effort when it’s freezing and unpleasant outside.

There are mental and physical symptoms associated with SAD, so a variety of self-care practices may be necessary. Self-care should be based on your own needs, so your self-care practices may look quite different than others. In addition to talk therapy, here are a few other suggestions for surviving and thriving this winter season:

  • Let there be LIGHT! The sun is further away from our hemisphere of the Earth during the winter, making it colder and darker. It’s dark when you leave for work in the morning and it’s dark when you commute home after work. Less exposure to sunlight can lead to low levels of vitamin D, which can cause lack of energy and sluggishness. Try these quick tips:

    • Light therapy using a special lamp can mimic sunlight to increase your body’s natural production of vitamin D.

    • Taking vitamin D supplements to maintain healthy levels in your body (consult your doctor before starting a new supplement regimen!).

    • Go outside during the late morning or early afternoon to catch some rays while the sun is still out! You can get sunburnt in the summer on a cloudy day, so you can also soak up the sun on a overcast winter day!

    • Eat foods high in vitamin D, including salmon, orange juice, or egg whites.

  • Nighttime is not always bedtime! The nights are longer, which means our bodies naturally produce more melatonin. This increase can cause drowsiness, fatigue, lethargy, and oversleeping. Here are some simple solutions:

    • Change up your alarms in the morning to different songs or ringtones so you don’t become accustomed to ignoring the same wakeup call every day.

    • Keep the lights on in your house night until bedtime so your brain knows when to shift into sleep mode.

    • Prepare for the next day before going to bed so the mornings go smoother.

    • Take vitamin B12 for energy during the day (again, consult your doctor before starting a new supplement regimen!).

    • Stay active by exercising multiple times during the week for natural energy and endorphins.

    • Open your curtains, raise your blinds, and let the light in through your windows during the day.

  • Stay social! One of the common symptoms of SAD includes social withdrawal. We’re more likely to isolate ourselves if we’re feeling down and it becomes much easier to cancel plans due to inclement weather. WInter weather also poses a challenge because there are fewer convenient opportunities to meet up with people than in there are summer. Try these tips to plan accordingly:

    • Socialize in different ways using video chat, texting, and phone dates.

    • Make backup plans in case of unpredictable bad weather, or have alternative dates on the calendar.

    • Make plans in advance, comparable to “save the date” announcements for weddings. This will give you and your pals enough notice to block out time in your busy schedules.

    • Use the weather to your advantage and engage in fun winter activities such as sledding, ice skating, building a snowman, or walking in a winter wonderland!

    • If you live in Chicago and need a few more ideas, checkout this Top Ten Travel Blog for more fun winter activities!

  • Make the most of your personal ME TIME! At its core, self-care means tuning in to your personal needs and taking care of yourself.  It can be easy to let our needs take a backseat to other obligations in our lives, but those obligations may become harder to fulfill if we don’t take care of ourselves. Oftentimes self-care means spending time alone, so make the most of that well-deserved “me time!”

    • Schedule time each week for you and you only. Try blocking out one hour a week on a consistent basis, and use this time however you need!

    • Be mindful and present. This may seem simple, but that does not mean it is easy. Take a few minutes each day to breathe mindfully and ask yourself, “Where am I right now? What am I doing in this moment? How am I currently feeling?” The answers may surprise you!

    • Practice hygee to feel cozy, maybe with slippers or a nice blanket!

    • Write it out! Whether you write in a journal, write a note to yourself in your phone, or write a Post-It note at your desk, writing is a great coping strategy! It can help you express yourself, get your thoughts out in a tangible way, and even identify the emotions you’re experiencing.

    • Pamper yourself, in any way you see fit!

    • Feed your soul with healthy comfort foods. Some great choices include soups, chilis, and hot chocolate (in moderation).

    • Use peppermint oil! Winter is the season for all things peppermint flavored, but peppermint essential oils have many holistic health benefits as well.

    • Practice gratitude by acknowledging small things throughout the day that bring you moments of joy, like tasting a good cup of coffee in the morning or listening to your favorite song during your commute.

    • Make a list of things you enjoy doing. Do those things. Rinse and repeat.

Monika Sharma