5 Mental Health Tips for Surviving the Long Winter

Michigan winters are long, dark and cold!  As a psychotherapist, it’s about this time of year we get concerned about how harsh weather impacts our patients mental health and wellbeing.  With the lack of sunlight and dangerously cold temperatures, it’s easy to see how isolation, withdrawal and symptoms of situational depression can increase.  I’ve tried to make a conscious effort this year to make the season more bearable.  I’ll share 5 things that made a difference for me this winter:

  1. Make your time indoors intentionally restorative.  Reframe the feeling of being trapped inside  to allowing it to afford you an opportunity for indulgent self-care practices!  Luxuriate in longer bathing routines, go to sleep a little earlier, prep food for the busy weeks ahead so you can eat clean and healthy on the go or if you really want to feel productive, try tending to things you may put off during nicer weather months like sorting through your piles, your to do lists or cleaning out a drawer or closet.  Decreasing clutter and indoor chaos can feel nurturing and supportive to come home to.  It can make your home feel like a sanctuary to replenish in.    
  2. Steal the sunlight where you can.  Whether indoors or out this season, steal the sunshine as much as you can!  With the right winter gear, the season can be quite enjoyable.  Taking a brisk, short walk or jog can feel invigorating.  Embracing the cold and engaging in outdoor winter sports can also be a fun way to enjoy the season.  There is beauty to be found in the monochromatic winter landscape.  There’s something quite breathtaking about how the light hits a blanket of fresh snow.  During the daylight hours, follow the sunlight.  Keep shades and blinds open and sit near the window to get your fill of sunshine when you can.  Absorbing vitamin D is extra important during winter months in Northern regions.  Check with your doctor to see if adding a Vitamin D supplement might be helpful to you during darker winter months.    
  3. Create cozy; what the Danish call “Hygge.”  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  If you have to spend a little more time indoors during winter months, why not make it the coziest possible environment you can?  The Danish are experts as creating coziness.  They even have a word for it – “hygge.” From an article in The New Yorker on the subject:  “Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of “The Book on Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection,” calls it “a practical way of creating sanctuary in the middle of very real life” and “a cure for SAD” – seasonal affective disorder.”  To me, hygge is wrapping up in a cozy blanket, in my cozy fleece pants and sweatshirt, with my coziest socks and slippers, in front of the fireplace with a giant mug of hot tea and honey and a pile of magazines.  Consider creating the most warm, welcoming sense of ‘hygge’ you can this winter.  It almost starts to feel like a secret indulgence!  
  4. Take the initiative to gather with friends/family.  Winters can cause us to feel isolated and alone.  We naturally don’t see as many people out and about and we can easily begin to feel a sense of disconnection from others.  Taking extra steps to make plans with friends is a healthy way to increase socialization and buffer loneliness.  My cousin who lives in Chicago, started a friends and neighbors potluck dinner she coined “Second Sundays” a while back and I thought it was a genius idea so I decided to copy her this fall.  I invited 4 other families to join us for a rotating potluck dinner every 2nd Sunday of the month.  The family that is hosting makes the main dish and all others bring sides.  Everyone helps with clean up so the host isn’t overwhelmed and it’s been such a fun way to casually get together with friends on a regular basis to increase the laughter, socialization and connection, especially throughout the long winter months.  Relationship building and friendship support is an important “immunity builder” to our mental health and wellness.  It’s one of the key factors positive psychologists emphasize as a pathway to happiness and rich quality of life.      
  5. Hot soup for the soul.  This last one is a personal favorite of mine!  If you know me, you know how much I love to make soup!  I make soup when I want to slow down, when I feel overwhelmed, or need a sense of comfort.  I love the art of slow cooking because making a dish that takes several hours to tend to really helps me shift into a lower gear.  I seriously go to ‘soup-making’ as a tool for self-care and coping.  Few things bring me as much joy as stocking my freezer with little individual servings of homemade soup.  When I see those little frozen investments of homemade goodness in there, I know I’m going to feel so cared for and nurtured later in the week when I pull them out and reheat them for a quick and easy nutritious lunch or dinner.  I love the entire process of making soup from the chopping to the slow simmer, to the way it makes my house smell to the tasting and subtle corrections at the end.  When I find a great recipe – I make notes for future reference; what I did differently, what I used instead, what worked and what didn’t.  The process is very therapeutic to me and one that continues to evolve and get better with time and practice.   

Overall, we need to be proactive and conscious about enduring the long winter season.  Whether you create indoor coziness or restorative self-care practices, bundle up and get outdoors, invite friends in or slow down and make soup, consider how you can reframe your perspective on the season to move from surviving to thriving for the rest of this winter!