Outrunning the Winter Blues
By Colin Vincent, MSW, RSW
February is frequently touch-and-go for those of us living in northern climes. While the longest and (hopefully) deadliest part of winter is past, the spring thaw is still a ways off and somewhere in the backs of our minds we know that March can pack a fearsome weather wallop. Plus, by February we’re coping with the cumulative impact of months of frigid temperatures, tragically short days, myriad holiday stresses and rampant flu bugs, all of which can deplete once seemingly abundant stores of optimism, motivation and energy. For this reason, the protracted blah feeling that often accompanies these seasonal challenges is commonly referred to as winter blues.
Signs that you may be suffering from a case of the winter blues include fatigue, low mood, low energy, low motivation, decreased socializing (e.g., staying in more and withdrawing from regular social activities), irritability, and intense hankerings for sweet and/or starchy foodstuffs.
For example, maybe you’re finding it harder to make it out for long runs during the week, preferring instead to stay inside noshing on potato chips and watching YouTube videos of kittens sleeping in cups. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Researchers estimate that 10-15% of Canadians experience some form of the winter blues, while 2-3% experience a more serious form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The good news is that this sort of funk generally lifts when spring returns. The even better news is that there are a few key strategies you can implement right now to shake off the blahs and boost your mood during these bitter winter months – despite whatever atrocious ‘weather event’ may be in the forecast.
No surprise here. Exercise is good for your physical and mental health regardless of the season. However, if you’ve got the winter blues, you certainly won’t feel like venturing out into the cold winter air to exert yourself, or hitting the gym after work, or doing much of anything else for that matter. Don’t let your depressed feelings about this year’s polar vortex run the show. Set these feelings aside and do what you know will help. Get active. Run. Walk. Swim. Spin. Ski. Snowshoe. You get the picture.
Need a little nudge to get you going? Tape your training schedule to the fridge, join a running group, set reminders and ‘running alarms’ on your phone, ask family members to (gently) encourage you to stick with the program, or leave yourself a voicemail after your next run describing in detail how good you feel and then play it back whenever you find yourself battling apathy. Do whatever works best for you.
Seek out sunlight whenever and wherever you can. Winter blues seem to be brought on at least in part by rapidly diminishing daylight hours in late autumn, which messes with our natural circadian rhythms and deprives us of ready access to the sun’s vital rays. Meaning we have to work harder to get the light we need to feel well. So throw open curtains and blinds, walk or run outside at some point during the day and, if possible, position yourself near a window during daylight hours (e.g., at work, home, the gym).
Again, what you feel like eating may not be the most helpful guide when it comes to planning your winter diet. Resist the urge to chow down on highly processed or overly sweet foods that can leave you feeling strung out and sluggish after the inevitable sugar crash. Instead, stick to lean proteins (e.g., salmon), fresh veggies and fruits, and complex carbs like lentils and brown rice. Foods that nourish the brain, keeping irritability at bay and helping stabilize mood throughout the day. For more info on healthy winter diet, check out this article from Eating Well.
Runners taking an Ottawa winter in stride (photo: Ian Hunt)
A depressed mood prompts us to ignore or discount positive information, which makes it much harder to find any relief from the blahs or to access helpful emotions like joy. So be sure to make space in your day for the good stuff. Focus on the things you can appreciate about yourself, the people who are close to you, and the experiences you’ve had. For example, a beautiful snowy landscape, a run you felt good about, a hug from someone you care about, a compliment from a co-worker, a delicious meal, a good deal on some new running gear, etc. Consider starting a daily gratitude journal to help you keep track of these little things that over time can make a huge difference in terms of your mood and general outlook on life.
Total hibernation is an understandable response to the trials and tribulations of a harsh Ottawa winter. The problem is that hibernation (bingeing on simple carbs, oversleeping, leaving the house as little as possible) only feeds into winter blues. So do your best to follow a plan instead of your feelings. For those of us who love to walk, run or wheel, meeting incremental training goals as we move closer to Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend is one of the surest ways to beat the blues.
Five tips for beating the winter blues (and sticking with the training plan)
1) Remember how a great run makes you feel. Build on that.
2) Tape your training schedule to the fridge or set a run reminder on your phone.
3) Rejig your schedule to fit in a run during daylight hours–combine exercise and daylight for a double mental boost!
4) Eat wholesome foods that fuel motivation rather than hibernation.
5) Start a gratitude journal: include all the things you love about running!
Colin Vincent, MSW, RSW, is a Social Worker with Lanark County Mental Health and a fitness enthusiast who recently discovered the joys of running. He ran his first 5K at the Brett Pearson Run for Your Life event in Carleton Place this past September.