Many of us experience the "winter blues" or increased feelings of sadness, anxiety or depression in the winter months—perhaps even more so in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
The good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to boost your mental health naturally.
You can try any or all the 12 tips below (in no particular order) with the reassurance that scientific research backs up the benefits of each:
- Spend time outside: Being in nature can increase energy levels, reduce depression and boost well-being. Just 20 minutes per day outside (anywhere…even in a backyard or city neighborhood) helps ground us and connect us to our world in ways that use many of our senses (smell, hearing, sight). Even if the weather is gray and rainy, the fresh air can help clear the head.
- Volunteer: Volunteering leads to lower rates of depression, and it gives a sense of purpose, which positively impacts longevity/life expectancy. In studies, researchers tried to answer whether people who volunteer tend to be happier or if happier people are more likely to volunteer. Either way, volunteering helps fend off loneliness, stay connected and contribute to communities in meaningful ways. Read how volunteering improves your health.
- Keep a gratitude journal: Write three things you're grateful for each day. Gratitude helps people sleep better and make healthier lifestyle choices. An attitude of thankfulness also helps people form stronger bonds with others. As with volunteering, the sense of connection to others is powerful medicine. Read more on gratitude.
- Exercise: If you had to choose just one mood-booster on this list, this is the most important. Exercise strengthens muscles and bones. It gets your blood circulating, which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. It helps your cardiovascular system work better, which, in turn, can help you feel more energy to do what you want. Read more about exercise benefits.
- Eat a healthy diet: You’ve heard it plenty of times—eat foods (plants, lean protein, good fats) rich in the nutrients your body needs to function well. For mood-boosting, pay particular attention to getting omega-3s. Try fish such as salmon or sardines, which have been shown to increase brain tissue and support the regulation of emotion and memory. Watch this webinar on healthy comfort food.
- Plan a getaway: Even a short weekend away may have significant, immediate effects on stress levels and can enhance well-being. Planning a trip engages your creativity and gives your mind something to focus on. In fact, anticipating the trip can be as much fun as actually going. It also gives you something to talk with others about and that’s part of maintaining connections and staving off loneliness. Read these 10 questions on planning a safe trip during pandemic conditions.
- Get solid sleep: Sleep is critical to your brain function and overall physical health because it’s when your body goes into “repair” mode. Do everything you can to create an environment that promotes a solid 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Limit blue light from devices by turning off your cell phone, TV or other electronic devices before you go to bed. Set your thermostat between 60-67 degrees—the optimal temperature for sleeping. Read more on healthy sleep. If you’re having trouble, try keeping a sleep diary.
- Sing or play music: Whether you can carry a tune or not, singing, playing an instrument or listening to songs on streaming services can brighten your mood. Did you know that harp music in particular encourages healing in intensive care unit patients? Be careful to choose music that encourages relaxation and optimism. Read one provider’s take on the healing power of music.
- Let your playful side come out: Challenge your brain with something fun—whether that’s a crossword puzzle, board game, card game, jigsaw puzzle or video game. Some can be done by yourself while others require interacting with family, friends or strangers. Either way, play can relieve stress, sharpen cognitive skills and enhance memory.
- Laugh: An old saying that “laughter is the best medicine” now has scientific support. Studies show that laughing reduces stress hormones and increases healthy ones. Laughter also works out your belly muscles and heart and can provide welcome distraction from negative emotions. Read more on laughter.
- Have a good cry: Just as a hard rain can clear the air physically, a cleansing cry once in a while can release pent-up emotions. It can serve as a “reset” for your system. And it can help you feel closer to others. Read more on crying.
- Read a book: Go ahead and curl up with a book. It turns out that reading can enhance your health in various ways—from stress relief to promoting connectedness. Read more about the benefits of reading. Download bookmarks for yourself and your kids.
All of these activities can be done relatively easily and inexpensively with just a little bit of time and intention.
Use a balanced approach. Don’t rely too heavily on one type of coping. For example, it’s best to limit the time spent on activities that are mostly sedentary, such as gaming or reading. You might even try putting together a couple of tactics, like working out to music.
Your mental health isn’t the only thing that can be improved by practicing these tactics. The mind-body connection is strong. What’s good for one is often good for the other.
Finally, you might notice that several tips involve an element of social connectedness. Staying connected with others is a win-win. By reaching out (for your sake) to family, friends or neighbors, you also help build a sense of community with others. And helping others fulfill this need can make you feel even better.
Be sure to talk with your doctor if these natural boosters aren’t enough to lift your blues. There might be other things going on that need diagnosis or treatment by a medical professional and that’s okay.