We know we should be meditating. We know we should exercise, do yoga and eat more fruits and veggies. But the inertia and misery we are all facing right now is no match for a super-greens smoothie.
Experts agree. “As we roll into our third year of COVID, many folks feel burnt out, fed up and generally tired of the pandemic life,” said Nikki Presswho has a doctorate in psychology and is an instructor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
“Winter is already a time that can vape moods due to reduced sunlight and fewer activities. Combine that with COVID fatigue, and it’s no wonder that many people are feeling gloomy right now.”
Marianna Strongin, an NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Strong in Therapy, agreed. “I have seen so many of my patients struggling,” she said. It’s during these months that we have to implement more than just the usual (meditate, exercise, socialize) regimen.”
We’re all feeling especially stuck — and for many of us, low on funds — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and stop the glums. To bust out of a rut, try these expert-backed strategies. (No lecture on the merits of cardio included, we promise.)
Master a new skill
Ask NYC native Solara Calderon, Ph.D.how to raise your spirits and the clinical psychologist, now in private practice in San Diego, will promptly tell you from firsthand experience the way to go is to hone a craft.
“Building a sense of mastery is one way to combat the winter blues,” she said. “This is an emotion regulation strategy mood from dialectical behavior therapy. Is there something you’ve always been interested in and want to expand your knowledge of? Building a sense of mastery over time, step by step, little by little, helps us feel more capable, confident and accomplished. There are many things we can choose to master from the comfort of our home. Want to take a stab at writing poetry? Propagating plants? Learning a new language?”
Calderon found salvation by buying a cookbook and strengthening her cooking and baking abilities. “Dessert Person” by Claire Saffitz is a current favorite, especially since the recipes are ranked in order of difficulty level. “This helps tremendously in the spirit of gradually building a sense of achievement,” she said.If pastry puffs at the end of a long, dreary day are going to be the difference between another pandemic spiral and something to look forward to, grab the rolling pin, we say.
Think: “I can’t wait to…”
By building anticipation around the things we do regularly, it creates excitement and gratitude, Strongin said. “The way in which we think has a direct impact on our mood, and this is one of the fastest ways to begin improving it. I work with my patients to begin thinking about our schedule from an ‘I can’t wait to’ mindset rather than ‘I have to.’ For example, we can think about going to bed as ‘just another thing I have to do in order to wake up and do it all over again’ or we can think, ‘I can’t wait to slip into my bed and feel the comfort on my body.’”
“Motivational burnout is very common during the winter blues, so setting up a reward system for yourself for accomplishing tasks can be a great aid for your mood,” said Dr. Bryan Bruno, medical director at Mid City TMS, an NYC medical center focused on treating depression. For instance, if Bruno is having a particularly hard week, he motivates himself with his favorite meal on Friday. “Even small rewards such as a soothing bath or setting aside time to read can be a great way to push through the winter blues,” he said.CBD bath bombs, here we come.
Take a virtual trip
“Maybe booking a flight and traveling internationally feels a long way off, but you can get out of the city for a little while by taking a virtual tour,” said Press. “Using Google Earth’s Street View, spend some time walking the streets of a city you’d like to see. Amble down the different avenues and check out the storefronts. ‘Travel’ together with a friend,” either in person or via Zoom screen sharing, she said, adding that using this as a way to plan a future trip can add even more enjoyment to the experience as another mood-booster.
Try a light box
Strongin recommends a light box for those whose moods are impacted in winter, which is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Do some research first and consult with your doctor before starting.”For many people, this becomes an essential tool in regulating mood in colder months,” said Strongin. Use it consistently, preferably around the same time each day.
Try cold therapy
“Another strategy that can help lift our spirits in the winter is to practice doing the opposite of what our sadness is pulling us to do,” Calderon said. “Instead of staying buried in bed under the covers, practice embracing the cold. This could look like playing in the snow or even taking a cold shower. Research has suggested, in fact, that a cold shower may have numerous beneficial effects, including boosting mood.”
If you prefer to get chilled outdoors: “Bundle up and get out there to walk or hike in the brisk air,” said Michael Alcée, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Tarrytown, NY, and mental health educator at the Manhattan School of Music in Morningside Heights. “Rediscover the magic of ice skating and hot chocolate like you’re a little kid again, or get your adventure on with some cross-country skiing. Your goal is to embrace winter light and air, and to get your blood flowing. You’ll be surprised at how much it does for you physically and mentally to incorporate these varied winter games into what seems like a deadening winter slog.”
Take a page out of Alcée’s playbook and have an outdoor drum circle or jam session with friends. “Research consistently reveals that playing music lowers depression rates, releases stress, strengthens social bonds and increases energy, focus and blood flow to the brain,” said Alcée, who also moonlights as a member in the pandemic-era band Heard Immunity.
Dance it off
What did we promise you about a treadmill-free prescription? Yes, the ole treadmill, exercise bike and elliptical are superb and all, but there is much to be said for dancing solo, too. “It’s a great way to get active without the drudgery of the gym and the self-consciousness of dancing in front of others,” Press said. “Putting on some tunes and letting the music move you is an excellent way to boost endorphins, increase your heart rate and get out of your head. Research shows that intervals of aerobic dance can boost your mood.”
“In order to feel our best, science says we need experiences that bring pleasure and experiences that bring achievement,” said Press. “It turns out that we don’t only crave sensations that feel good, but we are also lifted by feeling a sense of accomplishment, as recent research on depression shows.”Some of her go-to suggestions: Assemble a model, sculpt with clay or practice origami.