Getting over winter

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken.
Losing focus might be the best winter activity we can do, writes Jan Aitken.

I’m not normally too bothered by winter: it comes, it goes. However, this year I’ve found myself getting really ...  let’s just say "irritated" by it.

Friends and colleagues will probably have heard me mutter "I’m over winter this year". That’s a bit unfortunate as were only halfway through the season. I don’t think I have seasonal affective disorder, a form of seasonal depression triggered by low daylight hours that effects melatonin production, I just think I’m in a bit of a funk and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Whether or not you get the winter blues, winter unquestionably makes us more likely to want to stay home, eat comfort foods and plonk ourselves in front of a screen. The cold and dark days can, at times, make us feel a little down. Thankfully, research shows some practical and powerful ways to help minimise winter funk.

Time to have a look at what we can do to help ourselves get through winter in a more positive frame of mind.

GET OUT AND CONNECT

The greatest secret to creating happiness is connecting with others. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression and higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, therefore, others are more open to trusting and cooperative with them.

Connection generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical wellbeing. Research shows it is even good for our health, lowering stress hormones and inflammation in our body. This is especially true if we relate to others in a kind, compassionate and altruistic way.

We can boost social connection by being empathetic.

When we see someone smiling or crying or angry, the micro muscles in our faces move to match the other person’s emotions. In other words, to some degree we automatically sense what others are feeling. But nowadays we spend so much time looking at our phone, we’ve stopped empathising as we used to. Try tapping into your natural ability to empathise by looking people in the eye and exchanging a smile. Research also shows that when we are kind and compassionate to others, we not only feel better, but we become healthier and happier. We naturally connect. Whether it’s helping someone cross the road or helping a colleague at work or taking some baking in for morning tea, it can be relatively easy to brighten someone’s day and boost our own health.

RELAX AND BREATHE

Why not use the winter months as an opportunity to learn some stress-reduction techniques that can help through the rest of the year and for years to come?

Most of the year, we fuel up on adrenaline, drinking too much coffee, over-scheduling ourselves and waiting until the last minute to complete projects. Why? Because we are caught up in the idea that we need to be busy (see column "Keeping just busy enough", The Mix, June 29). We are constantly in a high-intensity mode to be productive. But the reality is that we are burning out. By constantly depending on our fight-or-flight response (which is designed for us to use in life-threatening situations) we are exhausting our body and mind. As a consequence, we’ve forgotten how to relax and many now depend on alcohol and/or medications to wind down.

Use the winter as a time to learn to engage your rest-and-digest response (the everyday mode we are designed to be in most of the time). Don’t worry, it won’t make you less productive. It will, however, lower your stress levels and give your body a break and a chance to recuperate. Learn to breathe deeply into your belly and get the oxygen circulating. We tend to breath high up into our shoulders and that doesn’t promote relaxation. Breathing is a great way to lower stress and to tap into your relaxation response. It also lowers your blood pressure and heart rate.

Research shows that each emotion is tied to a particular breathing pattern e.g. anger is tied to short fast breaths and happiness to a deep slow pattern. By deepening your breath, breathing into the lower abdomen, and lengthening the exhales, your body automatically relaxes.

TAKE YOUR TIME

We are often operating in high gear at top speed. Life commonly involves rushing from one thing to another and trying to multitask. Even when we’re doing something we enjoy, such as watching your favourite TV show or hanging out with family or friends, we are often doing something else at the same time. That can be anything from checking your phone, folding laundry, running errands and doing odd jobs. Nothing really gets our full attention anymore. We hardly ever give ourselves the opportunity to savour our experiences, to take time and notice what we’re doing. Yet research shows that savoring an experience will maximise our level of fulfilment and pleasure.

Here are a few activities that, when you take the time to be mindful and notice what you’re doing, can help boost your mood and well-being.Go for a walk outsideSmell the air, listen to the crunch of leaves underfoot, take a good look at the sky. Even if you live in the city, you can find a park or focus on the trees and birds around you. It will help lift your mood. Getting out in the light and sunshine, as little as there may be of it, may also help boost your mood.

Practice being gratefulWe tend to focus on the negative — a phenomenon psychologists call the negativity bias. While it was useful for our survival centuries ago it’s not quite as useful now. A number of research studies show that by practising gratitude and recalling and noticing all the things that are going right, we are happier and more content. Make time to laughLaughter helps make us more resilient and happier. It also boosts your relationships, making you more open to other people and more likely to connect. Research shows that laughter is even good for your health: it can reduce inflammation and lower your cholesterol while boosting your immune function.

Celebrate being idleYes, seriously. Stop packing so much into a day. We live in a culture of over productivity.  We even feel guilty when were not doing something we perceive as being "useful".

However, research shows that our mind moves into creative mode when we are relaxed i.e. in an idle daydream state. This is the state when our problem-solving abilities are at their peak. Ever noticed how you come up with a solution when you’re not focused on it? So let’s try to celebrate the winter as a great time to just do nothing. Don’t focus on your phone, social media or TV, let yourself relax completely or do household tasks that don’t demand much focus.

By helping detach and daydream, being idle and carefree will jumpstart your creativity, help you relax and give you more time to connect.

It’s a win-win for everybody!

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.

Twitter:@jan—aitken

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