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It’s winter and, although we’ve passed the shortest day, the weather is, well, wintry and the nights are long. I want to hunker down in my ‘‘cave’’ and wave the world goodnight until spring!
Unfortunately, that’s not really a viable option.
I don’t have a 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 winter funk in the middle of an unusual year.
Whether or not you get the winter blues, winter unquestionably makes us more likely to want to stay home, indulge in 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 has provided us with some practical and powerful ways to help minimise that winter slump.
GET OUT AND CONNECT
At a time when most of us want nothing more than to hibernate, one of the greatest ways to stimulate a mood lift is by connecting with others. Humans, on the whole, are wired to connect. It’s an innate part of our survival. Studies reveal people who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem and are more empathic to others. So, making a connection can generate a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Creating a genuine connection has been shown to reduce stress hormones and the resultant health issues that come from a mind and body overrun by stress.
So, get out there and catch up with your family and friends. The rewards can be huge.
RELAX AND BREATHE
Why not use the winter months as an opportunity to learn stress reduction techniques that will help through the rest of the year?
Most of the year, we are rushing about and are constantly in a high-intensity mode. As a result, we are burning out. By constantly depending on our fight-or-flight response, we are exhausting our body and mind and have forgotten how to relax.
Use the winter as a time to learn how to dial down the fight-or-flight response and engage your rest-and-digest response (the mode we’re designed to be in most of the time). Don’t worry — it won’t make you less productive, but it will lower your stress levels and give your body a chance to recuperate. Learn to breathe deeply into your belly and get the oxygen circulating. We tend to breathe into our shoulders and that doesn’t promote relaxation.
Deep breathing is a free and simple way to lower stress and to trigger the relaxation response. It also lowers your blood pressure, heart rate and the production of stress hormones.
There are plenty of great apps available to help. Calm and Smiling Mind are two I use.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Life commonly involves rushing from one thing to another and trying to multi-task. Even when we're doing something we enjoy, such as watching a favourite show or hanging out with family or friends, we are often doing something else at the same time, checking our phone, folding laundry and doing odd jobs. We hardly ever give ourselves the opportunity to fully ‘‘be’’ in what we’re doing, to take time and notice what we’re doing.
Here are some ideas that, when you really take the time to be mindful about, can help boost your mood and well-being.
Go for a walk: Smell the air, listen to leaves crunch underfoot, take a good look at the sky. Getting out in the light and sunshine, as little as there may be, can boost your mood and help you sleep.
Be grateful: We tend to focus on the negative — a phenomenon known as the negativity bias. While it was useful for our survival centuries ago, it’s not so useful now! Studies show that by practising gratitude and recalling and noticing all the things that are going right, we feel happier, healthier and more content.
Make time to laugh: Laughter helps make us more resilient and boosts your mood. It also boosts your relationships, making you more open to other people and more likely to connect. It is even good for your physical health as it can reduce inflammation and lower your cholesterol while boosting your immune function!
Celebrate being idle: Perhaps not by sleeping 18 hours a day, but resist packing so much into a day, especially on your days off. We live in a culture of over productivity and many people feel guilty when not doing something perceived as ‘‘useful’’. However, research shows that our mind moves into creative mode when we relax. This is the state when our problem-solving abilities are at their peak.
So, let’s try to celebrate the winter as a great time to connect, learn to relax and embrace chilling out, figuratively. Shift the focus from devices and screens to being mindful of what you’re doing, get outside, breathe deeply and just relax more. Be kind and gentle with yourself and others.
Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.
For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.