If you’ve ever moved from an area with two seasons (summer and more summer) to one with four, you know the cold, dark winter days can be a shock to the system. Sure, being able to embrace pumpkin spice lattes and freshly-fallen snow makes for seasonal fun. However, it can start to feel like it’s more than a winter coat weighing you down after a while.
The exact cause of “winter blues,” formally known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but lower production of serotonin is thought to be one potential reason. The production of serotonin, the “happy hormone,” is triggered by factors like warmth, sunlight, socialization, and physical activity, all things that get a little harder to come by when the snow starts to fall. There are ways to get a serotonin boost — even if you don’t have opportunities to attend traditional cultural festivals. Here’s how to increase serotonin and decrease winter blues.
The first rule of winter thriving is to get outside. In Scandinavia, it’s common practice for people to get outside every day, no matter what the weather looks like. (Hence the saying, “There is no bad weather — just bad clothing.”) If your exercise habit flatlines from November to April, set your bar low and simply resolve to take a 20-minute walk every day. Bring a camera or even your smartphone for capturing the beautiful, awe-inspiring, or sometimes comical scenes that you encounter. (If you’ve never seen a dog trying to make its way across an ice puddle, you’re in for a treat.) If you’re already a winter exercise warrior, take it to the next level with endurance running, ice climbing, or fat-tire biking. You can also experiment with a quirky new winter sport, like those listed above. Curling may look dumb when you watch it on TV, but you’ll be amazed at what it can do to your biceps and lats.
Can’t stomach the thought of venturing outdoors in the freezing cold? What if there were a roaring fire waiting for you? Whether by yourself, with a couple of friends, or at a party, a winter bonfire is a surefire (sorry) way to embrace the elements. Bring a sixer of your favorite stout, a wireless speaker, and a playlist of your favorite tunes, then crank up the volume and let it rip. If you get tired of the music, switch it up with a great fiction or documentary podcast; it’ll take you back to telling ghost stories around the fire at summer camp.
According to researchers at Canada’s University of Toronto, we feel colder when we’re feeling socially isolated or our mood is low. So, if the low temperatures and extra-early sundown bums you out, turn it into an excuse to party. The longest night of the year provides a great opportunity to make merry with your friends ahead of the holidays (especially handy if you’ll be spending the holidays with difficult family). Stir up some mulled wine, put on some lively music, and work up a sweat dancing and carousing with your favorite people.
In Scandinavian countries, there’s a long-standing winter tradition of stopping by a friend’s place — unannounced — for coffee, cake, and conversation. In Sweden they call it fika; in Iceland, it’s kaffi; and in Finland, it’s known as kakkukahvi. Since the surprise visit isn’t quite as welcome in American culture, we suggested banding together with a few other winter-resistant friends for a spontaneous hosting agreement: On these days, within these windows, anybody can stop by for a little afternoon pick-me-up. You’ll be surprised how looking forward to this simple pleasure dispels the winter blahs.
Counteracting seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues with a prolonged sweat session? It’s a pretty genius idea, if you ask us. Not only is it an instant cure for ice block toes and that chill you can’t seem to get rid of, but it also speeds up circulation, which helps your body release the toxins that build up with decreased physical activity, not to mention triggering a rush of energy and endorphins that defeat the winter blues. If you can’t access a sauna or steam room at your local gym or day spa, no worries — a hot bath with healing salts will work just as well.
The slower pace of winter invariably invites contemplation. It’s a perfect time to balance out the busyness of your life with intentional solitude, stillness, and maybe even a little woo-woo. It can be as simple as a walk through the cathedral-like quietness of a winter nature trail—sometimes I like to take it a step deeper by practicing the Tibetan Buddhist custom of “sky-gazing.”
If a winter storm keeps you indoors, try a twilight meditation session instead. When you get home from work, hold off turning on the lights for 10 minutes, light a candle, and focus on your breath while you listen to the silence. If you’re a journaler, you could also use this time to read through past entries to gain wisdom and appreciate how much you’ve learned and grown over the year.
Finally, take one evening per week to disconnect from Netflix, texting or social media, and offer yourself some mind-body-spirit TLC.
Want to instantly transform your dark, dreary apartment into a warm cave of winter coziness? Break out the slow cooker. Along with providing a delicious treat to look forward to, the slow cooker’s heady aromas will wake up your senses and fill your home with positive vibes. You can invite friends over for the feast, but it’s perfectly all right to put on your house pants and stuff your face in solitude.
Compensate your body for the lack of sunlight and get your serotonin boost by filling your space with warm, cozy light. This means foregoing the blue light of electronic devices for red, amber, or yellow light. These tones of light, which mimic sun or firelight, revive your eyes, nourish your pineal gland, and elevate a healthy, balanced ratio of hormones like serotonin and melatonin. You can get this light from burning candles or lighting a fire in the hearth, but it’s also just as effective when emitted from a pink salt lamp or exchanging your LED bulbs for incandescent ones. (They even make amber-tinted bulbs specifically for curing the seasonal affective disorder.)
Another page taken from the Scandinavian playbook is filling your home with living things. If you’re already up to your ears in houseplants, try something new by forcing a bulb, like a towering amaryllis or a bunch of brilliant hyacinths. If you’re cursed with a black thumb, it’s okay— just treat yourself to some fresh flowers once or twice a week.
There’s something about candlelight that makes winter undeniably magical. No wonder so many cultures’ winter traditions include a slow candlelit parade. Try it for yourself. Stick a tea light in a mason jar or light up a handheld lantern and explore a local trail or green space when darkness falls.
Winter is easy to love during the holidays. But after the presents have been opened and the decorations have been cleaned up, that’s when the real blues begin. In Norway, their recipe for beating the post-holiday slump is known as Fredagskos, which literally means “cozy Friday” but generally refers to a mini-celebration for no reason at all, except to give you something to look forward to each week. Your ritual can be as simple as having friends or family over to watch a movie and eat snacks. In Norway, the millennials have turned Fredagskos into #fredagstaco, which translates as “Taco Friday.” However, it must be said that if other cultures are anything to go by, the weirder the ritual, the better. In the Czech Republic, they throw shoes at the house. In Romania, they dress up in bear costumes and dance around in the town square. In Fernie, British Columbia, they send a crash dummy careening down a ski jump. And of course, we can’t forget the Minneapolis guy who turned frozen pants into a venerable Midwestern tradition. Somebody get that guy a medal. He wins winter.
As much as your winter will benefit from outdoor and social activity, there can definitely be too much of a good thing. In the midst of your crazy winter shenanigans, take a cue from the animals and plants and use the meager light and slow pace of the season as a time to catch up on self-care. Work your way through a stack of books, spend quality time in your coziest loungewear, enjoy listening to a classic album all the way through, and — above all — treat yourself to a great night’s sleep as often as possible. Sweeten your sleep with a pillow customized for great support (we love the Coyuchi Serenity pillow) and a plant medicine concoction (like Luce Farms’ Full Spectrum Hemp Extract) that will calm your racing mind and foster a warm feeling of relaxation.