10 Ways to Boost Your Mood on Those Dark Winter Days

Are you feeling the effects of winter? Do you have symptoms like low energy, brain fog, anxiety, or depression? If so, we’ve got 10 ways you can boost your mood while waiting for the return of spring.

How Does Winter Affect Your Mood?

If you live in the northern latitudes, you’re likely missing the sun more than most, and you may be feeling its effects on your psyche. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) raises its ugly head this time of year, and if you’re not getting enough exposure to light, you may be experiencing symptoms like fatigue, low energy, sadness, mood swings, and depression.

Scientists believe that the decrease in sunlight disrupts the body’s internal circadian rhythms, and can lead to feelings of depression. Less exposure to the sun and to light in general can also reduce levels of serotonin, the “good-mood” neurotransmitter, which is why you may feel the winter blues. Finally, the change in season can disrupt the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, which may result in sleep disturbances that can leave you groggy and fatigued.

Even if you’re not completely in the throes of SAD, you may still feel the effects of the shorter days and the winter weather. We humans are just too tied into the sun not to feel a change when it’s absent. According to a 2009 study, decreased exposure to sunlight increases cognitive impairment, which may be why your thinking has slowed a bit.

Another 2009 study found that bad weather affected people’s memory. Researchers quizzed shoppers to see how well they could remember 10 unusual objects in the checkout area of a shop on bright, sunny days, and again on cloudy, rainy days. You can probably guess that the shoppers quizzed on the bright day could remember more objects than the shoppers quizzed on the rainy day.

The evidence is strong: lack of sunlight, paired with cold, windy weather, affects mood. But you don’t have to sit back and accept it. There are many things you can do to still enjoy the winter months with a happy heart and bounce in your step.

10 Ways to Boost Your Mood This Winter

Below are some of the most effective ways to boost your mood when it’s dark and cold out.

1. Increase your exposure to light.

This is always the first step toward happiness, as it helps to counter the main reason why you may be feeling low. Get outside if you can, and let your skin soak up some rays for 15 minutes or so. If the weather is prohibitive, try one of the lights that are made specifically for chasing away SAD. These are called “light therapy boxes.” They produce broad-spectrum light that most closely resembles real sunlight, so they are usually more effective than just a standard light bulb.

2. Brighten up your living and workspaces.

In addition to getting more exposure to light, it also helps to brighten up the areas where you spend most of your time. Flood your work and home spaces with as much natural light as you can. Open up the drapes and let the light in. Position different types of artificial lighting around you, and try to avoid overhead fluorescent lights, as they are linked with headaches for some sensitive people. Use light bulbs that mimic daylight, and position them at the side of your computer monitors to reduce glare.

Next, work with color to improve your mood. Studies have found that certain colors can affect how we feel, so use that to your advantage. Yellow is generally seen as a bright and happy color, so see if you can incorporate some into your spaces, either with a strategically placed pillow, some pictures, or in the accents on your desk. Green is generally a calming color, whereas red is more intense. Blue is also calming, but it can create sadness as well, so you may want to tune it down for now. Orange is great for encouraging enthusiasm.

Pictures of nature are great options for either the home or the office, as they help induce calm and contentment. Get some fresh flowers and place them where they’re easily seen. You can be as creative as you like. Any changes you make will likely help you feel better.

3. Exercise.

For most people, it’s harder to exercise in winter because it’s so cold outside. Treadmill running or gym exercises may feel less enjoyable, and that can wear on your motivation. Yet exercise is one of the most powerful things you can do to lift your mood. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that make you feel good, and the effect lasts for hours afterwards.

Try to adopt a winter sport that you enjoy, like skiing or ice skating, or take up one that you can do indoors that will be fun, like racquetball, swimming, or dancing. Try some new home equipment that will inspire you, like a rebounder or a virtual reality exercise program, or get some DVDs and exercise along with an instructor. Use your imagination to spice it up a bit. The more you can make exercise fun, the more likely you’ll be to stick with it.

4. Get enough sleep.

Lack of sleep can make you feel groggy and tired, but it can also negatively affect your mood. Harvard Medical School notes that sleep and mood “are closely connected,” and that poor or inadequate sleep can cause irritability and stress. Even partial sleep deprivation can encourage feelings of sadness and anxiety.

A good night’s sleep, on the other hand, can make you feel ready to tackle the world. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor, and try to improve your sleep habits. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day, avoid stimulants like caffeine and alcohol before bed, keep the technology out of the bedroom (including televisions), keep your room cool and dark, and establish a pre-sleep routine that include at least 30 minutes of a calming activity before bed.

5. Get social.

Spending time with friends has been shown to help improve mood—as long as they’re positive, happy friends. It’s probably why we have so many parties and get-togethers around the holiday season. We feel that natural need to interact with others because we sense that it will help lift us up.

Researchers from the University of Rochester reported in 2017 that experiencing and even just anticipating events that you know you’re going to enjoy helps chase away the blues all day long. If those events involve spending time with people you care about, your mood lifts even more.

“It’s the social activities—positive, everyday experiences that involve other people—that may be most likely to brighten the mood of those struggling with depression,” said study author Lisa Starr.

So even if you don’t feel like it, go to that lunch with your friend, or that evening party in your neighborhood. It’s likely that after you’ve been there for a few minutes, you’ll start to feel better. If nothing is going on, set it up yourself!

6. Meditate.

Sitting quietly and meditating may not seem like it would help boost your mood, but studies show that it actually can. As an added bonus, it will help ease any anxiety you may be feeling.

The evidence behind this one is super strong. In a review of 47 trials that looked at meditation, researchers found that mindfulness meditation helped ease anxiety, depression, and pain, consistently. Other studies have found that meditation works just as well in reducing depression and anxiety as antidepressants.

What meditation does is train to brain to relax and be less taken up with distracting thoughts. We all have those running through our minds, and meditation teaches us to give them less importance, so they can’t affect our moods so much. Even if you think you’re feeling sad, not anxious, meditation can still help, as it can give you the skills you need to replace negative, depressing thoughts with more positive ones.

Mind wandering, in general—ruminating and worrying—has been associated with being less happy overall. Meditation can help quiet the part of the brain that is responsible for random, worrying thoughts, relieving you of their heavy energy. The more you meditate, the more you’ll be able to switch gears when your mind starts doing this, so you can experience more positive thoughts.

7. Get more tryptophan in your diet.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps produce serotonin. If you’re feeling blue, it’s likely that you need more serotonin. Giving your body the tools it needs to produce it is your best approach. Fortunately, there are many food options that are rich in tryptophan. Try adding the following to your daily diet:

• Seeds (sunflower, chia, sesame seeds)
• Nuts (pistachios, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts)
• Soybeans
• Reduced fat cheese
• Lamb, beef, and pork
• Chicken & turkey
• Fish (tuna, halibut, salmon, rockfish, trout)
• Shellfish
• Oat bran and oats
• Beans & lentils
• Whole eggs

8. Wear warm clothes.

This may seem like common sense, but look around: How many people do you see that are underdressed for the season?

Turns out that being cold leads to feelings of depression! In a 2014 study, researchers found that depression was more prevalent in parts of the country where cold and rainy weather was more abundant. Higher temperatures, on the other hand, were found in a 2008 study to help improve a person’s mood.

You can increase your resistance against winter depression by making sure when you go out, you are as prepared as you can be. Wear warm clothes and shoes, and don’t forget hats and gloves. Dress in layers—many thin, warm layers work better than only a few thick layers—wear winter socks, and look for a pair of insulated boots.

If you’re warm and comfortable during these winter months, it will help keep your mood from sinking too low.

9. Follow your nose.

The holiday season is full of comforting and exciting scents, including cinnamon, peppermint, and the smell of freshly baked goods. But when the holidays go away, all those scents often do, too.

Fortunately, you can easily remedy that situation and let your nose lead you to a better mood all winter long. The olfactory bulbs have a direct line to the areas of the brain that process emotions, which means that you can get strategic about what you’re smelling so that it has a positive effect on how you feel.

Studies have found that certain scents can lift us up, or calm us down. Try using the following essential oils in a diffuser, or simply put a few drops in your bathtub, or on a cotton ball nearby, to enjoy the mood-boosting benefits.

• Lemon and other citrus scents (energizing and uplifting)
• Lavender (best for taming anxiety)
• Jasmine (calming)
• Rosemary (pick-me-up)
• Cinnamon (stimulating, helps improve concentration)
• Peppermint (energy booster)
• Pine (stress-relieving)

10. Take up a new hobby.

Having something you can enjoy doing in the wintertime can make a big difference in your mood. Hobbies on the whole are good for us, and can provide a lot of health benefits. According to a 2010 study, hobbies are associated with both psychological and physical health benefits, including lower blood pressure, better weight control, and better mood. And in a 2015 study, researchers found that those engaged in hobbies were 34 percent less stressed and 18 percent less sad while doing them.

Indeed, hobbies can help you cope with stress, boost your energy, and can even help improve your time management. If you have a book club meeting at night, for example, you’re more likely to use your time at work efficiently so you can leave on time, whereas if you have nothing to look forward to, it’s easier to whittle away your time and end up leaving late.

Dr. S. Ausim Azizi, chairman of the department of neurology at Temple University’s School of Medicine in Philadelphia, told the New York Times that when you do something that makes you feel good, like a hobby, it activates an area of the brain that controls how you feel about life. It also stimulates the brain’s “feel good” area, resulting in a happier mood.

If you choose a new hobby this winter, or join a club of others pursuing the same hobby, you can also expand your social connections, and as mentioned above, that can boost your mood and your energy. Hobbies are known to enhance self-esteem and self-confidence, and to enhance creative thinking.

So get into your hobbies this winter, or take up some new ones. There are a lot of good options, but here are a few to get you started:

• Coloring, painting, or drawing
• Crafting of any kind
• Indoor gardening
• Reading and writing
• Photography
• Bird watching
• Winter sports
• Volunteering
• Dancing and other musical activities
• Baking
• Spending time with pets

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