Six Research Backed Ways to Beat the Winter Blues and Protect Your Mental Health

By Sara Pasternak, LMSW, LSW It’s that time of year again! After the holiday season ends, many of us find ourselves in a post-holiday winter slump. The months of January and February sometimes seem to drag by endlessly and some people even fall victim to symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as “Seasonal Depression”). In fact, researcher Darren Cotterell (2010) found that approximately 5 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder! Here at Avita Integrative Care, we would like to empower our readers and patients with some tips that can help them battle the blues. Here are seven simple tricks that can help you protect your mental health this winter: 1. Get Moving! Getting plenty of exercise can help safeguard against Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter months (and year-round)! In fact, research has shown that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression just as effectively as antidepressant medications (Robinson & Segal, 2017). It is recommended to aim for about 30-60 minutes of physical activity daily in order to notice significant benefits. However, even a little exercise is better than no exercise at all. Additionally, if you can get yourself moving outside in natural sunlight, you may notice a stronger positive effect than if you chose to do your exercise indoors. 2. Find a Buddy Who Loves Winter! According to research, emotions can be contagious. When people chose to surround themselves with happy individuals, they tend to feel more content and less stressed out themselves (Carter, 2012). Therefore, scheduling social plans with a positive, winter-loving friend can help influence your own mood, outlook and feelings about the colder weather and winter months. 3. Brighten Up Your Home. Open your windows and turn on your lights! Perhaps, even invest in a special light box that can be used to treat Seasonal Depression, such as this one here: https://www.amazon.com/Sphere-Gadget-Technologies-Lightphoria-Energy/dp/B004JF3G08/ref=zg_bs_13053141_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=Z8AGJGMFMPSBBBWQVB1G. Research shows that sitting next to a light box such as this one for 30 minutes a day can be just as effective in treating Seasonal Affective Disorder as Anti-Depressant medications (Hauck, n.d.). 4. Book a Vacation! If possible, treat yourself to a short vacation or weekend getaway. Choose a warm destination such as southern Florida or the Caribbean to get a healthy dose of “summer” weather. According to Dr. Rohan “Across the board, [Seasonal Affective Disorder] patients will tell [mental health practitioners that] they feel better [after taking vacations]” (Orlov, 2014). 5. Take Vitamin D Supplements. According to researchers Penckofer, Kouba, Byrn, and Ferrans (2010) , Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is prevalent when vitamin D stores are typically low. Try taking a vitamin D supplement daily to counteract any deficiencies that may be messing with your mood. Supplements can be purchased at a pharmacy or your local Whole Foods Market. Of course, always talk to your primary care physician before starting any new dietary supplements. 6. Book an Appointment with a Mental Health Professional Beginning a therapeutic relationship with a licensed mental health professional can help one work through unpleasant symptoms and feelings experienced during the winter months. Certain types of psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been shown to be effective in treating depressive symptoms (Melrose, n.d.). Here at Avita Integrative Care we offer CBT, biofeedback, and psychological services/psychotherapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder and other mental health conditions. If you would like to schedule an appointment or discuss your concerns with a clinician please call (888) 242-2732. To speak with the Sara Pasternak, LMSW, LSW, the author of this blog post, dial extension 4. Resources: Carter, S. B. (2012, Oct). Emotions Are Contagious-- Choose Your Company Wisely. Retrieved 2018, from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201210/emotions-are-contagious-choose-your-company-wisely Darren Cotterell. “Pathogenesis and management of seasonal affective disorder.” Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry, Volume 14, Issue 5, Version of Record online: 7 OCT 2010 Hauck, B. (n.d.). 8 Scientifically-Backed Ways to Beat the Winter Blues. Retrieved Jan 2018, from RealSimple.com: https://www.realsimple.com/health/mind-mood/emotional-health/winter-blues Melrose, S. (n.d.), Treating seasonal affective disorder with cognitive behavioural therapy is comparable to light therapy. Evidence-Based Mental Health 2016;19:e21. Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M., & Ferrans, C. E. (2010). Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 31(6), 385–393. http://doi.org/10.3109/01612840903437657 Robinson, L. &. (2017, October). Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Recognizing and Treating the Winter Blues. Retrieved January 2018, from Helpguide.org: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad.htm

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Powerful Secrets: Stretching Yourself to Embrace Change

It's that time again, when many people have begun the process of making those resolutions happen. While some embrace, even bask in, the promise of change, others falter in the slow torture—often doomed to failure—that change represents to them. We have great plans and aspirations, yet so often find ourselves at the end of each year having made little or no progress— or worse, having lost ground. Many have long since abandoned the annual ritual, because they grew weary of falling off the log, which makes them feel even worse. Why is it so hard to change? Thousands of wise and seasoned answers are offered in books, articles, interviews and research. We know what the formulas are and that change requires thoughtful planning and devoted execution. Change must be conceivable, believable, achievable, etc. Most of us are capable of excellent planning and have the means at our disposal to support the changes we aspire to make. More than the "how" of change; it’s the endurance of change that often eludes us. Why is it easier to fail at change than succeed? My work in Biofeedback and Stress Recovery brings people from all stations and walks of life and careers. From high profile professional, Olympic, collegiate and scholastic athletes to performers and musicians, to business and corporate leaders and healthcare professionals, dedicated parents, teachers, coaches, students, police and firefighters, employees, craftspeople and professionals of all kinds: everybody—young, middle and older, without exception—struggles with change. Quite simply: change feels stressful! "Stress Management" is not enough! Instead we need to learn how to manage ourselves in the face of the stress we experience, and build resilience. The archaic concept of ‘stress management’ is a myth! Life is full of stress, and it’s not going away any time soon. We truly cannot ‘manage’ a great deal of what stresses us. But what we can do- —what we must do—is learn to manage ourselves in the face of the stress we experience. A similar approach is the concept of “time management.” The truth is that no one can manage time. The clock keeps ticking and time moves forward. What we can do however, is learn to manage ourselves within the time that we have. There is a very fundamental difference in perspective here. We can now move from the passenger seat to the pilot seat. All stress is not bad stress. In order to change, we are asking ourselves to do something (or several things) differently. Doing things differently feels strange, uncomfortable to us. Many of us don’t tolerate this discomfort easily or well, and therefore the concept—as well as the work—of change is experienced as stressful to many people. The habitual response to stress is to do something that relieves or removes the stress. When we respond that way, the stress is making the decisions. To relieve the stressfulness, we then revert back to the “old way” and it “feels” better. Further, we often have a mindset that stress is bad and everything that stresses us requires relief. And that’s where we get stuck. This mindset anchors us to the old behaviors, and sabotages our efforts to change. We simply don’t or can’t tolerate the stressful discomfort of change long enough for it to become the new comfort! How do we learn to tolerate the discomfort that the process of change creates, long enough to get comfortable and succeed in making a change? This process is initially counter-intuitive since we are programmed by habits and life experience to resist discomfort. So we need to adopt a new and different skill set to manage it. A current perspective on this process is referred to as "stretching yourself." Learning the skills of stress recovery and resilience enable a person to restore their sense of emotional and cognitive balance and function. The feeling will be tangibly different than the sense of stress which disrupts our intentions. During the challenging early phases of change, you can employ these skills to soften the stressfulness that accompanies the discomfort of change. As you master the skills of reducing the stressfulness you feel, you will resist change less and can learn to tolerate it with the understanding, determination and self-trust that the change you have selected is good for you and your future. Many skills and techniques can restore balance and counteract stress. One of the most powerful and effective is to learn the skill of intentional, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing. Another is to train yourself to remain mindful and focused on what you are doing, rather than what you want. In this kind of work, when we focus too much on what we want, our stress level stays too high to get it (the classic “trying too hard,” as in test taking anxiety). However, when we master the skill of remaining mindful, together with balanced breathing, and focus on what we are doing; then, what we want will usually show up. It isn’t forced; it “happens.” Once this stress recovery is engaged, the stress is no longer making your decisions; YOU are making your decisions. In this way you learn to tolerate and resist that stressful “pull” back to the old habit, allowing the new ideas and behaviors to gradually replace the old ones. The experience generates a new comfort paired with the new habit: the change you want. Not saying it’s easy, but when you understand the mechanics of the resistance to change, and begin to regularly practice the skills and tools to manage your response to it; you can also pave the way to change and the greater things you want for yourself in the weeks, months and years ahead! You can learn to more comfortably "stretch!" Practice these skills for 10 minutes every day. EVERY DAY. Yes, you do have 10 minutes a day for personal development and growth. Invest in yourself! Practice and allow time to adjust; be a little patient. Practice makes permanence. This year I resolved to share these ideas with the LinkedIn community. Hopefully the concepts will resonate for you and help to unlock the understanding, tools and courage to take those initial small steps in learning to tolerate the discomfort of change—just long enough to become comfortable with the new “who and what” you’d like to become! Happy 2018! And best wishes for a successful year, in a safe and peaceful world Cheers! Share your journey if you feel the ideas were effective for you! ©Ellie M.B. Wolf, MS, BCB; Fellow, BCIA (Biofeedback Certification International Alliance)

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