The holiday season is officially gone. Holiday lights have been taken down, dying Christmas trees lay on the sidewalks of New York, and we’re already week two into our return to real life, hard as that is to believe.
Even if the holidays normally stress you out (believe me, I’ve been there), it’s undeniable that there’s a specific cheer centered around the season, one that garners an appreciation for the winter and its shorter days (more time to see those twinkling Christmas lights, duh).
However, once we enter the new year, things can get a little dreary. As soon as our resolution-induced excitement starts to wear off, the cold, dark months that loom over us until spring arrives can leave us feeling pretty down. In fact, some of us suffer more than others. SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a type of depression that affects people during the fall and winter, when days are shorter and darker, with symptoms that range from decreased energy to weight gain and social withdrawal.
But winter doesn’t have to be depressing. It turns out, it’s possible to keep up that holiday cheer, even long after the holidays have passed—and no, we’re not talking about continuing to wear ugly sweaters or drink eggnog. We turned to the experts for the best ways to keep our spirits high and moods boosted all winter long, whether we’re dealing with SAD or winter's somber spell.
Click through the gallery below to read on.
Spend time with your loved ones
This is pretty much a no-brainer, but spending time with the ones you love will help keep your spirits high and your mood elevated. “The most important thing, to stay in a good place mentally and to keep your stress levels manageable, is to have and maintain a few close relationships,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and author of The Power of Different. “Having people you can trust and confide in—and nurturing those relationships—does a lot of work for overall mental health.”
Keep your friends, family members, and partners near and reach out to them if you’re feeling down. Even if it’s too cold to do anything, have hot cocoa and movie night on the couch with your bestie—things will quickly feel less dismal.
Even if you’re feeling like you need some alone time, it’s important to stay connected. “Reaching out to friends and family can be the hardest thing to do for someone that’s dealing with depression, especially because isolation during the winter is so common,” says Celine Elise Alvarez, art therapist for Inner Growth Therapy. Still, do what you can to stay in touch. “Even if it’s via text, this will help the person feel connected and thus raise their spirits,” she says.
Plan the year ahead
Another way to keep your spirits up once the holidays are over is to look ahead at the bigger picture.
The holidays are over, and a new year is here. As we’re right at the beginning, take a look at the entire year you have ahead of you—warm, sunny summer and all of its possibilities included—and get excited. “Post-holiday, the most important thing is to have things in your life to engage in and look forward to,” says Dr. Steve Orma, insomnia and anxiety specialist. "The holidays are fun and magical, but once they’re over, the contrast can seem startling. Make sure you have an exciting year planned ahead for yourself. If you don’t have that yet, carve out time to sit and create it. Life should be fun and rewarding year-round, not just during the holidays—and it’s up to us to make it happen.”
So plan that tropical beach vacation—you deserve it.
Get your exercise on
Another way to heighten the spirit during a dreary winter is to make sure you get physical. Exercise and staying active is not only crucial to your physical but also your mental health—especially if you’re suffering from SAD.
“Establishing a regular exercise program provides many benefits, including a decrease in depressed and anxious feelings,” says Dr. Orma. “Joining a gym, yoga studio, or sports-related club not only provides physical conditioning, but also social interaction to combat post-holiday loneliness.” With that said, find something you enjoying taking part in and make an effort to be consistent with it. This is a great time to reassess your resolutions and make sure something fitness-related is included.
In addition to generally getting us down in the dumps, the winter can also have us feeling sluggish and tired. According to Dr. Orma, in addition to the obvious benefits, exercise is a good antidote to fatigue.
We know, we know—getting yourself off the couch when it’s freezing outside can seem impossible, but Dr. Saltz recommends getting at least 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week to maintain good mental health, which is just enough time to get your heart rate up without pushing yourself too hard.
Make sure you get some sun
There’s a reason we tend to feel happier during the warmer months, and it’s not just thanks to summer Fridays and beach trips. It’s the sun itself, and a lack of it can have an adverse effect.
“It’s believed that one cause of SAD is the lack of exposure to light,” says Dr. Orma. “Getting as much exposure to natural sunlight as possible is one way to combat the disorder.” He suggests getting outside as much as you can, and even combining your exercise with the outdoors. Go for a jog. Keep your blinds open to fill the room with light. Of course, don't forget your SPF, as the sun's damaging effects are just as strong during the winter as they are in the summer.
Of course, sometimes it’s just not possible to get as much sunlight as we need, due the shorter days, frigid temperatures, and the time we spend indoors for work or class. If this is the case, light therapy is an option. Devices are available that emit a bright light that simulates the sun with a specific range of UV light. However, Dr. Saltz recommends this be overseen by a psychiatrist, as it has a psychoactive effect that should be monitored.
Still, we should always look at the bright side of things and treat the excessive darkness as an opportunity to engage in other activities, rather than look at it as dull and depressing. “Our emotions come in large part from how we frame things in our mind,” says Dr. Orma. “Instead of thinking of the winter months as dreary, find a more pleasant way to focus on them. For instance, if it’s dark out, use that time to curl up inside with a good book. If it’s raining, learn to enjoy the sound and how cozy it feels to sleep to it.” Feeling good about a day on the couch? We’re all about it.
Up your nutrition
Food not only nourishes your body but your mind as well. Certain foods have been proven to boost your mood, and keeping your body healthy and strong enough to fight against winter sickness is a surefire way to keep your spirits up (I think we can all agree that the flu is never a good time).
When it comes to what foods to stock up on during the winter months, we turned to Rachel Paul, nutritionist/dietitian and founder of The College Nutritionist. She stresses that we should make sure we’re getting enough fruits and veggies. “The vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables boost our immunity, but can be harder to get during the winter because they aren’t in season,” she says. “We need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, a serving being about a cup or the size of your fist. Winter-specific varieties include root vegetables, like butternut squash and sweet potatoes, and citrus fruits, like grapefruit and orange. Sautéed collard greens and roasted Brussels sprouts make for tasty and delicious side or main dishes as well.”
Vitamin D is also crucial to a winter diet and may be extra beneficial to anyone suffering from SAD. A deficiency in this vitamin has been long linked to the disorder, due to the lack of light, according to Alvarez. Paul agrees, stating that a lack of the vitamin can possibly affect bone health and immunity. Luckily, there are foods we can stock up on to help get an extra vitamin D boost. “You can get it from canned tuna, fortified milk, whole eggs, fatty fish like salmon, and fortified cereals,” says Paul. Alvarez also suggests adding vitamin D supplements to your diet.
In addition to food, keeping ourselves hydrated is also important for staying healthy. “Drink up!” says Paul. “Heated buildings can actually make us dehydrated. Keep water or tea at your desk and refill your cup at least twice per day.”
Schedule an appointment
Still feeling down? According to Dr. Saltz, those suffering from SAD could possibly benefit from medication and/or psychotherapy. It doesn’t hurt to make an appointment with a psychiatrist or psychologist to get assessed. They’re here to help you when you can’t figure it out on your own.
Always keep in mind: No matter how bleak it can all be, brighter days await you.