Whatever your own personal feelings about The Season, there’s really no avoiding it. It’s December – the Solstice month – and if you’re in the dark Northern Hemisphere and one of the majority who feel happier, healthier and more energised by light and warmth than by dark and cold, it’s probably beginning to feel a bit oppressive by now.
We are most definitely diurnal creatures. Not just in the sense of not being nocturnal, but also in the sense that we respond to a new day starting as a “fresh start”, and we are energised by daylight. When days are shrinking to the size of pennies, it can feel limiting and de-energising. In fact, the evolution of our species over time really can’t compete with the relatively recent development of technologies that mean we can push back the natural darkness and force ourselves to keep working as though the seasons are irrelevant. The bottom line is that we want to hibernate, but are expected to keep going regardless.
Not only that, but instead of consolidation, reflection, rest and contemplation, everything is notched up a level in December and we’re urged to get out there and party, spend, meet deadlines and stay up – literally – all night to see in festive dates.
No wonder we’re all exhausted.
I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder when I was in my teens. At first, I tried to fight it. By the end of August and into September I would angrily tell myself that I would “not give in this year” – that I would NOT be negatively impacted by the season changing. When this proved an impossible approach, I began to sadly accept that I would be ill, tired and pretty miserable for a few months every year.
Over time, I realised that neither of these attitudes was serving my best interests, and neither were they necessary. Yes, the dark months of the year are more difficult, and the lack of sunlight makes me feel tired and depressed. But there are ways to embrace the Winter, and minimise its negative effects.
1 – If you can’t hibernate, activate.
It’s more difficult when it’s dark – and especially when it’s wet – to stay active. I’ve already noted that naturally, what we’re inclined to do at this time of the year, is to hibernate.
But being active – and especially being active outside in the little daylight we have – is crucial to staying healthy, energised and a little bit more positive during the Winter months. Wrap up warm and head to the local park, woods, towpath or (if you’re lucky!) beach. Walk, jog, cycle – and feel your mood lift with your heart rate. Raising your heart rate, using your muscles and breathing a little deeper will help to blow away the cobwebs and raise your energy levels.
If it’s really too wet and cold to – or if for any other reason you can’t – get out, then be a little bit more active where you are. Try not to sit for more than an hour or so at a time without taking at least a short active break – walk or jog up and down the stairs a few times, every hour or so. Do a 5-minute whole body workout or a 1-minute burst of jogging on the spot. (I’ll be posting some more 5-minute workout videos over the next few weeks, so subscribe to my YouTube channel for those)
Don’t beat yourself up for what you’re struggling to do. If you can’t imagine how to find an hour each day to go for a run, or do a workout, then instead, whenever you put the kettle on, jog on the spot beside it while it boils. Or see how many squats you can do in the time the coffee brews. Do calf raises and kegel exercises while you brush your teeth, push-ups against the kitchen bench as you wait for the microwave to ping. When you’ve been at your desk for a while and you feel a brain fog begin to descend, stand up and do a few minutes of dynamic stretching.
If you do a 3-5 minute workout every hour or so throughout your working day, you’ll be working out for roughly half an hour a day- and you’ll hardly have noticed that you’re doing it. No need for special kit, footwear, or clothing. Just move, use your muscles, raise your heartrate and see how much better you feel for it!
2 – If you can’t sleep, breathe deep.
Sleeping is absolutely one of the best things for coping with the darker months. In fact, getting enough sleep is probably the single most beneficial thing we can do for ourselves year round. It helps us to heal, boosts our immune systems, gives us energy and sharpens our brains. If we’ve had enough sleep, we’re less likely to binge-eat and more likely to exercise.
However, “enough sleep” in the Winter – when it’s dark for two-thirds of every day and naturally we’d be asleep for the entirety of that time – is beyond the reach of most people. What I’m suggesting, then, is not that sleep can be substituted without consequence, but that if we have to keep going, there are ways of minimising the negative impact.
Breathing deeply is a much-neglected thing and has hugely beneficial results. I learnt diaphragmatic breathing back in the late 1980s, as a teenage trumpet player, and it’s helped me over the years to manage stress, gauge my pace during long runs (and, in fact, to run in the first place) and boost my overall health. The ultimate deep breathing guru is Wim Hof, aka The Ice Man. There is incredible evidence to show that Wim Hof’s deep breathing techniques (even if you don’t fancy taking it to the next level and immersing yourself in icy water!) have a huge positive impact on health and well being… and it all centres around breathing deeply and oxygenating the body.
I highly recommend consciously and deliberately taking deep breaths every so often throughout the day. Pause, stand up if possible and stretch, and take in some deep, diaphragmatic, whole-body-filling breaths. Your anxiety and tension levels will be reduced measurably and immediately, your energy levels will increase and your brain will de-fog.
Breathing – it’s cheaper and a lot healthier than chugging energy drinks!
3 – If you can’t abstain, go for gain.
Okay, so I’m digging deep for the rhymes now! But the point holds. Winter – and especially the festivals we cram into the middle of it – is a difficult time to abstain from eating and drinking things that make us feel less healthy and energised than we’d ideally like. Alcohol, sugar, refined carbs – all things that are seen as a normal part of celebrations and survival at this time of year – can leave us feeling sluggish, depressed and even in physical pain. Perhaps ideally, we’d cut these things out of our diet entirely (or at least, only ever eat or drink them in very small quantities) but again, Western culture sets us up for a fall in this area – especially during winter holidays.
My advice would be to abstain if and when you can, but if you can’t abstain, or don’t want to abstain, then “go for gain”. By which I mean:
- Gain Maximum Awareness (aka Mindfulness)
Make the most of each thing you eat or drink. Enjoy it. Not just the experiences around it (the party, socialising, relaxation etc) but the actual eating or drinking that thing. Savour the chocolate/Baileys/mince pie. Feel it on your tongue. Taste it. Be aware of it. Engage with the experience of eating it. Feel grateful for it and make it count in a positive way.
- Gain Nutrients
In between eating sugary, highly-processed foods or drinking alcohol, cram in some nutritionally-dense foods. My absolute, number one favourite is to make vegetable soups. They’re super-low calorie and can contain 5+ of your five-a-day in one bowl. They’re also very cheap and extremely easy to make – I don’t even use stocks, but simply blend a variety of vegetables, herbs and spices together, sometimes with sunflower seeds or cashew nuts. (The nuts and seeds make the soup creamy, as well as adding protein.) Just chop up the veggies, boil them in water till they’re tender, blend (I use a hand blender, which is fabulous as I can blend the soup right there in the pan) and eat.
My own positive nutritional guidelines (which will get a blog post all to themselves soon) are:
- Eat a wide range of fruit and veg
- Eat more legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
- Eat a wide range of herbs and spices
- Eat a handful of nuts every day
These guidelines remind me to take a positive approach to nourishing my body. Crucially, it’s not a list of “don’t”s. As well as providing my body with a range of nutrients, if I do these things, I’m a lot less likely to feel the need to eat a whole family-sized packet of biscuits or crisps as the result of an afternoon slump!
A useful habit to get into, if you want to avoid hangovers and sugar slumps, is balancing your alcoholic or caffeinated drinks and sugary treats with frequent sips of water. If you drink a pint of beer, drink a half pint of water. Shot of whiskey? Order tap water too. Sip water alongside sugary and alcoholic drinks, or alternate water with alcohol. Likewise, if you’re eating a lot of sugar and salt, stay hydrated by drinking at least two litres of water during the day.
I’m not suggesting that you drink so much water that you’re flushing the nutrients and electrolytes out of your system. Over-hydration is dangerous too. But healthy hydration is key to feeling (relatively) refreshed the morning after the night before!
These three habits will help you to avoid eating or drinking too much of the headache- and lethargy-inducing foods and drinks, will help to counter the effects of those foods by helping you to hydrate and maintain levels of vitamins and minerals and will help to reduce cravings caused by nutrient deficiencies.
Rhymes aside, these three things: Keeping active, Breathing deeply, nourishing your body and staying hydrated will go a long way to helping you to stay healthier and happier during the Winter months.
Meanwhile, don’t throw the hibernation baby out with the iced-over bath water. The best way of all to counter the craziness of the season is to take a step back from it. Everyone’s situation is unique, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach here. But I think there’s a place for remembering that this is a season that naturally would have us slowing down and recovering. Making space for this to happen – whether taking cat naps, going for gentle walks or saying “no” to some of those party invitations – is going to help us survive with our mental and physical health intact for Spring.
Wishing you all the joy of the Season, and none of the accompanying stress!
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