Tips and tricks for staying on top of your mental health this season
As the sun sets, I glance over at the clock to see it is only 4:23 p.m. I sigh and lean over my laptop to type away at yet another final research paper. The season of dark days and cold nights is upon us, and with it comes an overwhelming sense of lethargy, carb cravings, and a drop in serotonin levels.
Serotonin is a hormone that connects to our mood — lower levels of serotonin increases chances of depression. Everyone experiences the effects of low serotonin levels differently. Someone who has anxiety, lethargy, or sleep-deprivation that begins in the late fall and gets better in the spring could have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a season-activated depression.
But even if you don’t have SAD, many people lack energy or are more likely to to see the glass half empty in the winter. The holidays can be stressful for many reasons that are not necessarily connected to depression. The stress of final exams, when anxiety runs high and sleep gets put on the back burner until the holidays, can lead some people to isolate themselves from their friends or family.
Whatever the reasons for the negative thoughts and melancholy emotions, it is extremely important to prioritize your mental health this winter. Here are some strategies for how to limit the effects that the dark and cold can have on your mind and body.
Melatonin is a hormone linked to sleep. Our bodies produce more Melatonin when it’s dark, so in the winter there is an increase of melatonin which can throw off our biological clock and cause an inconsistent sleep schedule. If getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night sounds like a fairytale, there are still strategies for getting a better sleep this winter. Going to sleep at a similar time each night and having a pre-sleep ritual can help balance out your biological clock that is confused by the extended darkness. Rituals could include turning off your phone or laptop, making yourself a cup of tea, or having a bath or shower — whatever works for you to tell your body that the time to sleep is approaching.
Even a short 10-minute walk around the block can increase energy and improve your mood. Exercise can also decrease anxiety and stress. Unfortunately, exercise can be tough to fit into our schedules, especially in the winter. The number one way to maintain a regular exercise schedule is to pencil it into your daily calendar just like you would an appointment or assignment. Another method is to get a gym buddy or an app to hold you accountable — step counters can be handy for pointing out how much your body has really moved that day.
Healthy eating is something everyone should attempt through all seasons, but especially during low times or when your mental health is struggling. Physical and mental health are so intertwined that taking care of one will automatically tend to the other. Joel Fuhrman’s book “The End of Dieting” focuses on five foods that provide immune-boosters — something much needed through the flu season. There is an easy acronym to follow: “G-BOMBS” — greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds. If you find yourself reaching for yet another box of pasta or making yet another grilled cheese, consider adding some greens or veggies to the mix, or stop by the Root Cellar on the way home every now and then to make sure your fridge is always stocked with fresh ingredients.
Life gets busy and we don’t always have time to see our friends. But with a decrease in serotonin, the mood hormone, there can be a decrease in our desire to be touched, which can further drive loneliness and isolation. It is important to hug your friends, be near them, and check in with them and see how they are doing through the darker months. Set reminders on your phone to call your close friends. Tell people when you are feeling down — a good cry (followed by a good laugh) with a friend are proven pick-me-ups.
Light & breezy
The decrease in sunlight and fresh air that we experience through the winter has a strong connection to stress and misery. Taking daily walks outside, perhaps to get a coffee or just to clear your head, can be an easy fix to the lack of fresh air and daylight. Taking vitamin D is also a useful addition to your diet in the winter months, when our intake is limited compared to the summer. A wide range of vitamins can be found in the campus pharmacy — consult with a healthcare professional as to which vitamins could benefit you and your mental health.
Incorporating organization into your life looks different for everyone. But having goals for your day and week can drive productivity and help with time management. Create a to-do list each morning, even just on your phone as you bus to school, or the night before when you are headed to bed. Keep the list functional and manageable. I like to make a big list of everything I need to do and then add stars to my top 3-5 priorities. If I get those done I can address the rest of the list, but if not, I know I accomplished my priorities.
Count your blessings
Journaling or making lists about things you are thankful for can remind you of the good things and give you perspective. It can also be a good way to check in on your mental health, because on days when you cannot think of many blessings, often your mental health is at its worst. When I feel overwhelmed, I like to take deep breaths while looking out the window, and I think of all the good things in my life that I am grateful for. It often does not take away the anxiety, but it does provide perspective.
Feeling low, depressed, anxious, and stressed cannot always be solved by a walk or a chat with a friend — human emotions are deep, complex, and serious. But some days it does work to chant, “It’s a bad day, not a bad life” over and over in your head. It may be cheesy but it really is true — there is good in every bad day. Some days we just have to look a little harder to find it.
Sometimes, though, your mental health might be too great a burden to bear. If depression is interfering with your job, relationships, or health, seek professional help. If in crisis, call the 24-hour Vancouver Island Crisis Society phone line at 1-888-494-3888.