How to Beat the Winter Blues

Healthy Living

January 5, 2021

The dreary days of winter can be difficult. Even if holiday cheer buoys you through December, January may be another story. Winter depression often sets in after the presents are exchanged and the twinkling lights go dark. 

Some years, the sadness creeps in slowly, building day by day. Other years? It rushes in full force.

Whatever form your post-holiday blues take, you aren’t alone. 

It’s normal to feel down and out after the glitz and glitter of celebrations fade. That said, you don’t have to resign yourself to the crushing weight of disappointment in the weeks following the holidays. 

Instead of settling into your funk, take steps to add joy to your January.

First things first, talk to a therapist.

Family dynamics, unmet expectations, strained budgets and grief over empty places at the dinner table often place stress and strain on what’s supposed to be a celebratory season. If the holidays have left you with a mixed bag of emotions, a professional can help you sort them out.

For those who already see a counselor, make sure to keep your January appointments. But if you’re new to the idea of therapy, the post-holiday season is a great time to give it a try.

You don’t have to be suffering from a particular mental health issue to talk to someone, either. Plenty of people seek occasional therapy for non-specific reasons. Just as you’d see a doctor for a sudden sore throat, you can reach out to a mental health pro on an as-needed basis.

And these days, getting effective therapy is easier than ever. 

The proliferation of online services means that you may be able to connect with mental health professionals from all around the country. You can seek out a therapist who aligns with your values and offers appointments that suit your schedule. 

Plus, major medical insurance often covers the cost of mental health therapy, sometimes even from apps or other online services.

And if you’re really feeling out of sorts, ask about medication.

For some people, therapy works even better when paired with prescription medication. Signs that you should discuss antidepressants with your healthcare provider include:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Physical or mental exhaustion

AdventHealth recommends discussing these issues with your primary care physician and your mental health therapist. Consulting with both may provide a balanced perspective on whether medication is a good fit for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask about medication, either. There are lots of non-medicinal ways to alleviate depression and anxiety, but some people benefit from adding a prescription to the mix. 

And there’s nothing wrong with getting the help you need, provided you’re working with a professional to find the right balance.

Also, if you’re already taking depression or anxiety medication, keep it up during this time. If you feel like it’s not working or working less than usual, talk to your provider about adjusting the dose, but don’t stop taking it before you have a chat with your doctor.

Next, clean up your eating habits.

The holidays are known for indulgence. While all those treats probably tasted good at the time, they may have left you sluggish and bloated.

Instead of rueing each Christmas cookie you ate, make a plan for better habits in the new year. You don’t need to think of it as a diet. Rather, view it as providing the nourishment that your body needs.

Set regular meal and snack times and stick to them. Fill your refrigerator with fresh fruits and veggies. Carve out time on the weekends to prepare balanced lunches for the week. Buy yourself a water bottle with markings on the side, and use it to track your fluid intake.

Consider these small steps as part of an overall plan to eat better. Even small changes over time can help you build a stronger food foundation. 

And while you’re at it, clear out the clutter.

Presents take up space. If you’re having trouble finding homes for all your new possessions, use the winter months to donate old items and do some organizing.

Your mental health will appreciate this activity. That’s because clutter and stress hormones go hand in hand.

By tidying up your living space, you may start to feel more in control of your life and your mood.

If you’re having trouble getting started, just focus on one room or one category, like your lingering holiday decorations or your kid’s overflowing dresser drawers. Start small and work your way up, building momentum as you go.

Oh, and get moving.

Exercise has powerful mood-boosting effects. According to the American Psychological Association, regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication for some people.

After a season of leisure and indulgence, fitness activities may be just what your body and mind need.

The APA recommends keeping your exercise at a moderate intensity level. You’re less likely to give up if you don’t push yourself too hard, and you’ll still reap plenty of brain-boosting rewards even at a moderate pace.

But don’t forget to take time to rest.

Holiday parties, late-night wrapping sessions and cross-country travel can leave you short on sleep. Once the festivities have wound down, your body may be craving extra rest. 

Allow yourself to take it.

Turn off electronics an hour or two before bedtime. Tuck yourself in at a regular time each night, and set your alarm for a consistent time in the morning. Your body will thank you for setting up a good sleep routine and sticking to it.

Get rest in the form of downtime, too. Set aside a few minutes each day for yoga, meditation or another relaxing activity that recharges your batteries.

Still feeling blue? Try soaking up the sunlight.

For some people, especially women, January depression is more than just a bout of the post-holiday blues. Sometimes, the culprit is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Light therapy is effective for some people with SAD. You’ll want to purchase a therapy lamp with a 10,000-lux brightness level and start by using it for about 15 minutes per day. Your health  insurance may even cover this device. 

But before you start shopping for a lamp, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor. She might have specific recommendations for you, or she might want to suggest a vitamin D supplement instead of (or in addition to) a therapy light.

If a light box isn’t the right approach for you, consider placing more lamps in your home or office, opening the window blinds, and bundling up for frequent daytime walks.

Filling your calendar might help, too.

December is a busy month, and many people love the hustle and bustle of a full schedule. From mailing cards to gathering with family members, it seems like there’s always something to do during the holiday season. 

By comparison, January’s calendar may feel pretty bare. And if you’re an extrovert or just someone who loves company and a plan, the letdown of a post-holiday empty schedule can feel extra lonely.

Start penciling in appointments to connect with friends and family members throughout the winter. Even if you’re keeping your physical distance to reduce flu and coronavirus transmission, you can still maintain contact. 

Pick up the phone, arrange an online chat or schedule a winter hike in the woods together. Sending handwritten notes is another simple way to brighten a loved one’s day.

Just make sure to set realistic resolutions.

New Year’s resolutions are supposed to make your life better, but all too often, they contribute to a sense of failure. Avoid that issue by setting realistic goals that you’ll be motivated to achieve.

Baltimore magazine suggests the following tips for making and keeping resolutions:

  • Choose goals that align with your passions and interests
  • Break a big goal into small steps
  • Schedule rewards along the way
  • Ask a friend to help you stay on track
  • Stay open to making adjustments as needed

If your resolution is bringing you more grief than satisfaction, then it’s probably not the right one for you. Either tweak your plan or trade it in for a different, more relaxing goal.

Last but not least? Temper your expectations.

If you spend 11 months of the year looking forward to December, it can be a bummer when the month is over. Giving yourself something else to anticipate along the way may help relieve that feeling.

Keep it small by requesting a day off work next month, or go all out by brainstorming summer vacation ideas. Making plans for an upcoming activity will take your mind off the monotony of everyday life. 

Even if your ideas never come to fruition, just daydreaming of an adventure could be enough to see you through the winter.

The post-holiday blues are a common phenomenon, but they don’t have to get the best of you this year. With self-care and the help of healthcare professionals, you can find peace and joy throughout January and beyond.