Feature Archive

Say Goodbye to the Winter Blues

Healthy Ways to Boost Your Spirits

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

The holidays are over and now all there is to look forward to is ... winter, with its seemingly endless days of dark, dreary weather. Fortunately, there are ways to boost your mood, many of which you may not have thought of. Here are a few suggestions to help you beat the winter blues:

Acupuncture

Acupuncture, an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine which involves the insertion of tiny, hair-like needles into specific points along the body, is an ideal way to move your energy and lift your spirit, says Anne Mok, acupuncture supervisor at the Brownsville Multiservice Family Health Center, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although acupuncture treatments are always tailored to the individual client, one specific point on top of the head -- known as G20 -- has a "lifting" effect, says Mok, which will leave you feeling "more alive, more awakened."

Aromatherapy

Different scents can bring about different moods, Mok explains. Lemon grass and peppermint, for example, lift your spirit, while lavender and chamomile have a soothing effect. Use scented bath salts, bath oils, or candles, or apply oils directly to your pulse points. A diffuser is also a good way to fill your room with your chosen scent.

Auto-Hypnosis

Also known as guided imagery or visualization, auto-hypnosis gives you the opportunity to "escape," says stress-reduction specialist Debbie Mandel, MA, a lecturer at Southampton College in Long Island, N.Y., and author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul. Begin breathing to your natural rhythm, says Mandel. Then close your eyes and visit a "happy place." "Give yourself a loving affirmation,'" says Mandel. "Say to yourself, for example, 'I am completely relaxed sitting on this beach.' In three minutes you will feel like you have been away on vacation," says Mandel.

Mandel has a few other suggestions to help lift your mood:

  • Bring a new plant into the house to create a spring-like atmosphere.
  • Look at the color orange, the color of cheerfulness. No need to repaint the house; just place an orange on your desk.
  • Crank up the music. Whatever makes you feel happy and brings back memories of good times.
  • Stay connected to other people. We tend to be more isolated in the winter. If you can't get out, rely on phone or email.

Change Your Routine

It's not necessarily the weather itself that brings on the blahs, but the fact that the weather can keep you indoors, says life coach Leslie Levine, MS, MBA. Instead of bemoaning cabin fever, focus on activities that lend themselves to being indoors -- journaling, organizing your office, cleaning out your closets, inviting friends over for dinner. If, on the other hand, you tend to favor more indoor pursuits anyway, change your routine and head outdoors. "Too often people assume that they won't like a certain activity just because they 'never have, never will,'" says Levine. Break out of your comfort zone and try something new -- cross-country skiing, perhaps, or a brisk walk with a friend.

Deep Breathing

We all know how to breathe, but too many of us breathe with short, shallow breaths. The less oxygen that flows through our body, the more tense we feel, says Adrian Calabrese, PhD, a holistic therapist in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and author of 10 Spiritual Steps to a Magical Life: Meditations and Affirmations for Personal Growth and Happiness. A daily deep breathing meditation of just one minute in the morning and one minute in the evening (of course, more won't hurt you) will remove much of the clutter in your brain. Deep breathing also calms you down when you've got that restless, bored "cabin fever" feeling, while also restoring energy to sluggish cells.

Exercise

Low to moderate intensity physical activity -- 30 to 90 minutes every day -- induces positive changes in our immune system, says John Seifert, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn. This translates into fewer sick days from the common cold and other upper respiratory tract infections. But not only can your physical well-being be improved through activity, but symptoms of depression, tension, and anger -- all of which may be more common during this season -- can also be minimized through daily physical activity.

"Physical activity is a great combatant for depression," says outdoor adventure expert Brian Brawdy. "An easy walk through the park, a weekend hike in a local forest, or simply catching a sunset now and then, are great ways to keep your body and mind fresh and healthy. Hibernation is great for bears, not so for humans."

Light Therapy

If your winter blues seriously disrupt your life, you may actually be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (aptly known as SAD). The widely accepted treatment for SAD is exposure to bright light (light therapy or phototherapy).

We usually can't get enough bright sunshine during the winter to make an adequate difference, especially on rainy days or in cold climates, says Michael E. Thase, MD, professor of psychiatry and medical director of the Mood Disorders Module at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and chief of the Division of Adult Academic Psychiatry and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.

Portable desktop light boxes which can sit on your desk or in front of a TV or exercise bike, can provide adequate exposure if used for 30 to 60 minutes each morning.

Massage

Massage can help promote relaxation, reduce stress, and perhaps even boost your mood, says Susan Lang, co-author with Michael E. Thase, MD, of Beating the Blues: New Approaches to Overcoming Dysthmia and Chronic Mild Depression. Massage can help reduce muscle tension and promote pleasure, says Lang, something that many people with a low level of depression lack.

Mind-Body Therapies

Mind-body techniques such as qi gong, t'ai chi, and yoga may all be effective in helping you beat the winter blues. Qi gong and t'ai chi (a form of qi gong) have been practiced for more than 2,000 years and promote both physical and emotional health through a series of slow, fluid gestures that are paired with visualizations, breathing patterns, and subtle shifts of weight.

Qi gong author and qi gong video instructor John Du Cane says that qi gong can help you relax by bringing more oxygen in to your body through deep breathing techniques. "When you're indoors in the winter, you're taking in less good air, and you end up feeling sluggish," says Du Cane. Proponents of qi gong say that the practice can help you increase peace of mind, improve mental clarity, and increase energy and vitality (in addition to boosting metabolism, lowering blood pressure, flushing the lymph system, improving balance and fluidity of movement, and oxygenating tissues).

T'ai chi also offers physical benefits as well as mental relaxation, says t'ai chi and qi gong instructor Phil Bonifonte, author of T'ai Chi for Seniors: How to Gain Flexibility, Strength, and Inner Peace. "The practice of T'ai Chi can lift you above the depressing winter-time blues by showing you how to relax and enjoy the season," says Bonifonte. Movements (known as forms) with names such as "Wave Hands Like Clouds," and "Scoop the Sea and Look to the Sky," will help you learn to move more efficiently, while also teaching you how to concentrate on the moment instead of on the past or the future.

Yoga, which literally means union in Sanskrit, is also a restorative practice that can help invigorate as well as relax you, says Thomas Claire, MA, MBA, assistant professor in the healing arts program of Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, and author of Yoga for Men: Postures for Healthy, Stress-Free Living.

"Some people experience the winter blahs because the cold and the dark make them feel less like getting physical exercise," says Claire. "Doing the physical practices of yoga can be a great way to get physical exercise at a time when you might feel more like becoming a couch potato.

"It's also important to remember that yoga is about an entire way of living, not just the physical exercises," Claire explains. Yogic principles of diet, for example, which often favor simple, vegetarian meals, can help you overcome the lethargy and fatigue that often accompany overeating; especially of the "heavy" foods we tend to eat during the winter months.

Muscle Relaxation

The winter blues consist of both depression and stress, says Dan Johnston, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science for Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga. Although we can't live stress-free, we can learn to undo what stress does to us. The following relaxation exercise quickly reduces muscle tension throughout your body. Practice this simple, 10-minute exercise every day, says Johnston, and winter stress won't take its toll on you.

  • Sitting comfortably in a chair, make a fist with your hands. Hold the tension for 10 seconds and then relax.
  • Do the same thing with the biceps. Raise both arms and create tension. Hold the pose for 10 seconds and then relax.
  • Work your way up to your face and forehead and then down to your chest and belly, and then down to your legs and to your toes. Create and hold tension in all the major muscle groups. When you finish, you will have pushed your muscles into a state of relaxation.

Published Jan. 12, 2004.


SOURCES: Anne Mok, acupuncture supervisor, Brownsville Multiservice Family Health Center. Debbie Mandel, MA, lecturer, Southampton College. Leslie Levine, MS, MBA, president, Life Integration Concepts. Adrian Calabrese, PhD, holistic therapist, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. John Seifert, PhD, associate professor, exercise science, St. Cloud University, St. Cloud, Minn. Brian Brawdy, outdoor expert. Michael E. Thase, MD, professor, psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Susan S. Lang, co-author, Beating the Blues. John Du Cane, author. Philip Bonifonte, Chinese Health Institute, Kingston, Pa. Thomas Claire. MA, MBA, assistant professor, healing arts program, Queensborough Community College, City University of New York. Dan Johnston, PhD, assistant professor, psychiatry and behavioral science, Mercer University School of Medicine, Macon, Ga.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 7:22:01 AM