Ah, winter. What a beautiful season. If you are a northern dweller, there are some gorgeous natural spectacles during these cold months - powdery snow falling silently, icicles hanging like chandeliers off branches, and the soft puff of your breath against an occasional cloudless blue sky. And....there are also rivers of sludge to trudge through, biting winds, dark, early evenings, and layers and layers of clothing to don and peel off when switching between indoors and out. If you live in a warmer climate, you may not know these joys and downfalls, but even the earlier hour that it gets dark can have a profound impact on any person's mood! There is even a condition known as SAD (seasonal affective disorder): a seasonal depression that causes low energy and crappy moods. Even if you don't suffer from this particular ailment, it is still very common to feel isolated, sluggish, and generally blue when temps get low.
Being from California, my first real winter here was a rude awakening. I already "run cold" and have a condition that causes my hands and toes to lose circulation when they get too cold. Not fun qualities to have in single-digit temperatures. However, I am a tough cookie, as my grandma used to tell me. I was not about to take winter lying down! My strategy for staying warm is fairly simple; forget about looking cute and opt to wear as many clothes as I can physically fit on my body. Done. Strategy for dodging those my-arms-haven't-seen-the-sun-in-months blues, however? A little more complex.
Naturally, my first instinct was to turn to warm, comforting foods to comfort my chilly soul. I have a major sweet tooth, so during winter, when I was craving a boost of serotonin (the happy hormone), I would reach for baked goods to provide that instant rush. Let's be real - I know I'm not the only one to use this method. It makes sense - starchy, carbohydrate-rich foods spike blood sugar, providing a burst of energy and "heat" to your body. However, that spike soon plummets and you're left feeling lower and hungrier than before. So you just eat more muffins, right? Yeah.....you see how this cycle can be a dangerous one. Paired with the difficulty of getting out of your warm bed to hit the gym or your yoga class, reaching for comfort from food can lead to not only weight gain, but decreased confidence and energy. Yikes. None of those things sound like positive ways to spend your winter, right?
There must be a better way, you say! Yes, my friends; believe it or not, there are ways of feeding and warming your soul without using food! Revolutionary? Not really. It all comes down to the concept of primary food - the idea that the most important nutrients your body and mind need come from your relationships, career, home environment, spirituality, physical activity, self-care and creativity. Just like every person has different dietary needs and preferences, everyone has different primary food requirements to live their best life! During winter, when our environment can cause a dip on our general happiness scale, it is more important than ever to pay close attention to the areas of our lives that could use a little more attention. When you look to primary food sources when you need to lift your spirits, you are nourishing yourself on a deeper, more sustainable level, and the effects will be lasting and possibly life-changing!
I encourage you to find primary foods that YOU enjoy doing, but if you need some suggestions, here are a few of my favs to take the "food" out of "comfort":
1. Get moving!
I know, your bed is cozy. And I know it's cold and dark outside. I'm not saying go run a marathon (although if that's your jam, then totally go for it), but getting some sort of physical activity every day can have a major impact on your mood. Remember that happy hormone, serotonin? Exercise increases serotonin levels, without the inevitable crash caused by eating a whole bag of cookies. Not only will building some heat literally make you warmer, but you will feel accomplished, stronger, and have more energy to shrug off the urge to stay at home and watch Netflix all day.
CREATE AN ACTIVITY VISION: Whatever you love to do, do that. That could be doing your thing at the gym, taking a group fitness class, walking, or even just doing some vigorous housework or dancing in your apartment. When you feel like sitting and vegging out in front of the TV is a way better option than any of those, close your eyes and visualize yourself doing your favorite form of movement. Feel the heat in your body, the rise and fall of your breath, the buzzing of your limbs and the relaxed or invigorated feelings you experience afterwards. Now do you still want to stay on the couch?
2. Rock out!
I am a firm believer in the healing power of music. How exciting is it when you hear your favorite song on the radio when you're out in public? You feel like it's being played just for you, it lifts you out of whatever possibly negative or stressful thought you were having and suddenly you are brought smack down into the present moment. You can also get a burst of energy from a particularly upbeat song (hence the magic of your favorite instructor's barre playlist - hint hint). So when you are feeling particularly sluggish, or need a little help doing my previous suggestion, putting on your feel good jams can be the perfect antidote.
CHOOSE YOUR MUSIC MEDICINE: I highly suggest creating a "Happy" playlist, or section in your CD collection. That way, you always have your feel good tunes ready to go when you need to feel good! If you need a little help creating this list, check out my favorite music application, Spotify. This application for your computer or device makes it easy to stream millions of songs, discover new ones, listen to playlists made by others, or create your own! Check out the Browse feature, which includes lists categorized by genre and mood! Happy tunes, here you come!
I am the first one to eagerly huddle indoors as soon as jacket season arrives, so I am not saying go dine al fresco all winter. However, I have realized the importance of getting natural light and even direct sunlight for at least short periods of time during the winter. When I am inside all day with artificial lighting and stale heated air, I get sleepy and lazy. Your brain can also become deprived of fresh oxygen, making you less productive. No funsies, since I know we are all busy people who need to be on our game at all times! My suggestion: employ my drastic layering technique, and take a stroll once a day. Get off the subway a stop earlier or park farther away from your destination. Sit outside for lunch if the weather isn't too nasty. Natural light increases serotonin and a bit of cold air is sure to snap you out of a drowsy state.
WORK WITH WHAT YOU GOT: Hey, I get that not all winter weather is conducive to this lovely-sounding stroll (romping in snowstorms may not be the wisest or healthiest choice). If it's just not going to happen, crack a window in your apartment, open the blinds, and let some of that fresh air and light invigorate you.
4. Embrace the power of touch!
No, I'm not talking about your touch screen device. Physical contact can seriously impact our general happiness. Pressure on the skin can lower stress hormones, and a warm touch triggers a release of the hormone oxytocin, which creates feelings of trust and attachment. You don't have to be on the receiving end of a back rub to reap these benefits - the same physiological affects occur for you when you are doing the touching! Give hugs, rub your friend's or family's shoulders or backs, warmly shake hands when you meet people. If you are not the demonstrative type, book yourself a massage as a treat, or attend a yoga class where you are sure to receive hands-on adjustments (if you are in New York, I highly recommend taking Alison Riazi's class at Laughing Lotus for this!). If you are in a romantic relationship, get busy and get happy! Feelings of connection are the most comforting of all, so the more you can make the effort to physically get together with friends and family, the better!
FOR ON-THE-GO COMFORT, TOUCH YOURSELF: In a completely non-suggestive way, of course! Warm up your hands by rubbing them together vigorously for about 30 seconds to a minute (this builds a energy and heat between your palms that has a healing affect when held over on your skin). Then place your hands on your shoulders, neck or temples and either hold them there or make small, circular motions, working out any knots or tension you feel. Make sure to breath, and let the heat from your hands move from your skin into your heart. Maybe even smile - it feels better that way. :) Here are some more DIY massage ideas!
5. Meet up!
It is so much easier to stay in and stay isolated when it's dark and cold. But it is so much more beneficial to get up, get out, and get together with those you care about! Whether it's meeting with your friends for tea or lunch, seeing movies or plays with your family, setting a sweat date with a coworker, or just inviting your romantic partner over to cook dinner and watch a movie - engaging with others in person is an almost guaranteed way to get out of a case of the bummers. You are more likely to stay in the present moment and out of your head when you are focusing on listening and engaging with someone else. Think about those in your life that make you feel good - your funniest friend, your sweetest family member, that motivating person at your job - and make an effort to see them as often as possible. Doing something that you both enjoy together will help the tone stay positive instead of a bitch-about-the-weather-and-whatever-else-isn't-going-well session. Laughter is always the best medicine, so make jokes, even if they're dumb, and laugh openly and often.
PENCIL IT IN: Take a look at your schedule for the week and identify where you have breaks or activities that can be done with someone else and invite people! They could most likely use the companionship, as well. If your friends are far away, check out Meetup.com to find others with similar interests who want to go do fun stuff (yes, even when it's cold outside!). You also have to RSVP to meetups on this site, so you are held accountable to getting some face time with real people!
The bottom line with any of these steps is to take action when the winter blues have you down. Complaining about the cold doesn’t make it warmer and just throws you down further into the negativity pit. Gorging on heavy, fatty, or sugary foods will for sure not help you get out of that pit, either! Take a look at some of these practices, see what resonates with you, and try it out! While you won’t alter the weather, you will alter your mindset and start to see and feel a little more sunshine all around you.
With all the love, light, gratitude and warmth in my heart,