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Beat the Winter Blues

Stay healthy, upbeat and positive despite the grey gloom

By Abigail Thorpe

Every year as February settles firmly around us and we wait for yet another two or three months of winter to end, it’s not unusual to start feeling the affects of the cold and grey that surround us. The holidays are over, the thrill of the first snow has long passed, and our skin longs for some warmth and the vitamin D of the summer months.

Though it may sound funny, the “winter blues” is a condition that affects many adults in the U.S., especially those in northern climates. And given that here in Sandpoint we’re just an hour or so from the Canadian border, the seasonal effects are real. Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder subset that explains symptoms of depression during certain times of the year, particularly winter. And while only around 6 percent of Americans suffer from SAD, many more experience some version of the winter blues.

But despite the cold and grey, there are several ways we can help fight off the doldrums and beat the winter blues. Particularly in this beautiful outdoor paradise we call home, there is much opportunity to lift our spirits, even if the temperatures remain freezing. Getting outside, pursuing a hobby, connecting with friends and family, and incorporating a healthy lifestyle can all help keep our spirits high and our mental health in check.

Get outside! This one’s not just coming from us. Studies have shown that even a limited amount of exercise each day can help boost spirits and prevent depression. A study from Harvard Health explains that low-intensity exercise sustained over time helps release neurotrophic proteins, or growth factors, that spur the growth of nerve cells and improve brain functions.

Exercise supports growth of cells in the hippocampus—the area of the brain responsible for regulating mood—which in turn makes you happier. Just 15 minutes a day of high-intensity exercise like running, or an hour of low-intensity exercise like walking or household chores can have a significant effect on your mood. Plus, exercise can help you sleep better, which in turn affects your mood and productivity.

But while just getting off the couch can help, getting outside is even better. It may be cold, but lucky for us Sandpoint is made for outdoor activity all winter long, and opportunities abound. Bundle up and hit the slopes, the trails or backcountry for some fresh air that will make you feel so much better.

“Being able to sneak in a snowshoe or a ski before work, or go up and take a few laps on a powder day before work, makes Sandpoint so special,” says Jenny Curtos of Outdoor Experience downtown. “Having that accessibility is definitely what keeps me going throughout the winter.”

If you don’t have a ski pass to Schweitzer but still want to enjoy some winter sports, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are a great way to get outside. Pine Street Woods and multiple trails throughout the community provide plenty of space to explore, and you can even rent gear from places like Outdoor Experience for the day. A full rental kit for either snowshoeing or cross-country skiing is only $25 for 24 hours, and Pine Street Woods offers rentals and a variety of programs for experienced skiers or beginners.

“Snowshoeing is a great place to start,” adds Curtos. “You can hike in the winter too, but sometimes the trails can be icy or snowy, and snowshoes are a great all-encompassing way to be prepared for those situations.”

After some trial runs with rental gear, if you decide you love it, entry-level snowshoes are fairly affordable at around $150 for a set. It might just be a new hobby you take up year after year. Speaking of hobbies …

Discover your own hobby! In summertime it’s easy to keep busy out on the water and enjoying all of the warm-weather activities that abound, but if you’re not an avid skier or snowboarder, there are other things to keep you busy during the winter months. Whether it’s painting, writing, snowshoeing or collecting music, a hobby is a great way to stay content and busy during the colder months, which seem to drag on this time of year.

You may already have a hobby or activity you gravitate toward. If so, great! Take the extra time you have in the day to explore those even more. But if you don’t have a hobby, this could be the perfect time to find one! Maybe you’ve been wanting to learn an instrument, or you’d like to start reading more—whatever it may be, your mind, mood and family will thank you.

Find ways to connect. During the winter it’s easy to snuggle up and stay cocooned inside by yourself, but even more so this year because of COVID, it’s often easy to feel disconnected from others. Connection is vital for your mental health and happiness, even during a health crisis.

There are many opportunities to connect while respecting others’ and your own health, so make a point to find ways that work for you. If going out for lunch, dinner or a coffee isn’t an option for you, pick up the phone and call your friends and family, or schedule a Zoom or Facetime drink date to catch up.

Nonprofits and other organizations that help those in need are still out helping people in whatever ways they can, and they need volunteers now more than ever. Take some extra time in your week or month to volunteer. You’ll feel better and have an opportunity to give back to the community.

Volunteering helps create a sense of purpose and reminds us of the many blessings we have, putting things in perspective. As it turns out, helping others helps us too by reducing feelings of depression or loneliness. As the saying goes, “We cannot feel thankful and unhappy at the same time.”

Change your lifestyle. Our surroundings, what we eat and how we spend our time all have a huge impact on our mental health and mood. January, February and March are well-known for their lack of sunshine in these parts, and the loss does have an effect on our mood.

Those who know swear by their vitamin D during the winter, and taking supplements is one way to replenish our system and keep our vitamin D levels high and happy when the sun isn’t shining. Another option is to invest in a sun lamp. Just 30 minutes a day by one can help you feel happier and healthier—just like some time in the sun would.

But beyond supplements and vitamin D, what we put in our body has just as much impact on our mood and outlook as how we spend our day. Too much sugar or refined carbohydrates may make us feel good in the moment, but long term they don’t support sustained health and energy.

Just like it’s important to get outside and exercise every day, getting the right amount of nutrients, drinking plenty of water (even if it’s herbal tea—cold water isn’t always the most cravable in the winter) and listening to what your body needs are important steps to maintaining a healthy outlook and perspective.

Finally, maintaining a routine and building activities into your day will help you feel productive and in control. It might sound nice to sleep in extra or skip that walk, but routine can help you feel in control of your situation, which actually reduces mood swings and depression.

So if the winter blues have you down, don’t give in. Grab a friend, head outdoors, and fill your days with healthy activities, people and purpose that will keep you feeling upbeat, happy and full of life until the sun rolls around, the ice melts, and we can once again go back to weekends on the lake.

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