Surviving Winter Skillfully
By: Laura Miller, LMSW
Winter is here and for the time being also here to stay. Freezing cold temperatures and brutal winter storms have swept through the country over the past couple of months. Most recently, winter weather caused unprecedented devastation in areas throughout Texas, leaving millions without power and access to water. Alongside the destruction that winter storms may cause, the change in weather can also leave many people feeling isolated and down. This winter, given COVID-19 restrictions, many people may feel even more isolated and experience low mood. While many may long for warm summer months and day dream of walking outside without needing to bundle up in layers, others may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to changes in the season. Thus, don’t just brush off any changes in mood with a case of the “winter blues” or an “annoyance with the cold” and make sure to check out the below steps to stay in control of your emotions throughout the change in seasons.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is a skills-based intervention aimed at helping people gain more control over their emotions. From the category of emotion regulation skills, comes “ABC PLEASE”, a catchy mnemonic to help remember how to reduce vulnerability to unwanted negative emotions that the winter months may be more likely to prompt.
A: Accumulate Pleasant Experiences: Depression is thought to be maintained by the dynamic that when someone is depressed they are often isolated and withdrawn, with little access to stimuli that offer any reward. While it may feel intuitive to cut back on activities and responsibilities when you don’t feel up to it, becoming less active can
actually increase low energy, fatigue and worsen depression. When this happens, one can become a part of a vicious cycle of worsening depression. In order to break the cycle, one use behavioral activation, a type of depression treatment, to increase pleasant events. Increasing pleasant events can lead to positive emotions and making a concerted effort to engage in multiple pleasant activities can help to create a buffer between you and stress. It’s as if each time you engage in something pleasant, you put “money in the bank” to be later drawn on when you need it (i.e. for when stress comes along). However, not engaging in any pleasant events will leave you low on resources and create additional stress! While it can feel more challenging to find pleasant events in the winter time, spend time brainstorming a list of pleasant things; read a book, watch a new movie, connect with someone you haven’t talked to in a while, bake a cake, etc. The possibilities are endless!
B: Build Mastery: Do at least one thing each day that helps you feel competent and in control of your life. For example, practice an instrument, work on a home improvement project that you’ve been thinking about doing, learn to knit or teach yourself a new language! Turn the time spent inside this winter into time spent doing something that you’ve always wanted to accomplish. The idea here is to challenge yourself a little, get better at something, or cross something off of your “to-do” list. As you achieve your goals, you will feel productive, competent and ultimately experience a mood boost! Plan for success, and pick something that will be difficult yet also achievable. You can gradually increase the difficulty over time as you reach your goals.
C: Cope Ahead of Time with Emotional Situations: Everyone has certain situations that will likely make them more vulnerable to experiencing negative and unwanted emotions. For example, some people become more irritated when they haven’t eaten or feel sadder every time it starts to get dark out. Think ahead of time of all of the situations that may lead you to experience negative emotion and plan in advance for how you might help yourself cope. For example, can you make sure to set alarms throughout the day for a reminder to eat meals and also have snacks prepared ahead of time? Would it be helpful to make sure all of the lights are turned on prior to the sun going down and also turn on your favorite music to have on in the background as it gets dusky and turns into evening? Imagine yourself in the situation that causes you stress and rehearse in your mind ahead of time exactly what you can do to make yourself feel better. Having a plan in advance can help you cope in the long term!
PL: (Treat) PhysicaL Illness: You can take care of your mind and emotional well-being by first taking care of your physical health. Take medications as prescribed, go to the doctor when necessary and listen and respond to your body’s needs. You can also be sure to check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 here.
E: (Balanced) Eating: What you eat and drink can impact your mood. Pay attention to how you feel after eating certain foods and note the foods that make you feel more energized. Make sure to get enough nutrition so that you feel fueled to go about your daily tasks.
A: Avoid Mood Altering Drugs: Avoid any non-prescribed drugs as they may make you more vulnerable to negative emotion and also have consequences on your physical health.
S: (Balanced) Sleep: Try to get the amount of sleep that helps you feel rested throughout the day. If you feel rested, you will be better prepared to complete your daily tasks by having more energy and motivation throughout the day. When someone is sleep deprived, it can have significant consequences on their emotional well-being. However, getting the proper amount of sleep has been shown to result in significant mood boosts. Keep reading here to learn tips on improving your sleep hygiene.
E: (Get) Exercise: Do some sort of exercise every day. Don’t let the cold weather totally rule your exercise routine. It’s better to do laps around the house, or walk up and down the stairs inside, rather than avoid exercise altogether. You can start small and build up your exercise routine over time. In addition to all of the positive effects on physical health, exercise has been shown to have a significant positive impact on mood.
While it can sometimes feel like the winter months are never going to come to an end, remember that eventually, it will. Don’t wish this time in between winter and spring away, but rather, think about how you can turn this time into a period of self-care for yourself. And of course, if you feel like you need more support reach out to a mental health professional. Here at BPS we are wishing you all a safe, peaceful and healthy winter. Stay warm!