Blue Monday is behind us and the days are getting longer... slowly, but surely! If winter sports aren't your thing and no warm destinations are on the calendar, you might find yourself huddled up next to your Happy Light, imagining yourself on a beach somewhere. I feel you.
This blog is for you if you're wondering what else you could do to thrive this winter with inner peace rather than merely survive.
- Reality gap
- Radical acceptance
- 5 expansive practices for inner peace
For the love of winter!
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reported a whopping 35% of Canadians indicate having the "winter blues" and 10-15% have a mild form of seasonal depression, while 1 in 20 Canadians will meet the criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD; Kwong, 2015).
If you're struggling with the grey, short days and cold weather, please know that you are very much not alone. If you find yourself scrolling through your camera roll and remembering happier, warmer times - good on you.
Research shows that actively reminiscing on the nostalgia of a happier, livelier time releases dopamine in the brain and buffers against stress and anxiety (Novotney, 2023). So please, reminisce away! Furthermore, remembering positive memories from upcoming seasons can serve as an anchor or beacon of light through mundane, darker days. It reminds us that change is inevitable, feelings don't last forever, seasons change, and good times are possible.
It's generally helpful to acknowledge and validate when you're feeling down, and take into consideration the context of your mood because it helps us process our emotions and experiences. However, focusing too much on the reality gap (i.e. your idea life vs. where you are at) can exacerbate feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety.
A psychologically flexible perspective would have us:
- Be mindful of contributing stressors and difficult parts of our reality
- Name, normalize, and nurture our feelings about it with compassion and kindness towards ourselves
- Acknowledge what is true about reality as it is right now and its context
- Turn towards our values and commit to living in ways that feel meaningful and important to us
Radical acceptance is a term used in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) to describe the experience of no longer struggling against an aspect of reality day in and day out. Acceptance is a process of [sometimes] repeatedly noticing when you're fighting something internally, and then choosing to drop the struggle and let it be. When we radically accept reality - or in other words, choose to acknowledge what is true about reality and allow ourselves to grieve - the struggles tend to arise less frequently.
In terms of the winter reality gap, acceptance might sound like, "Yup. It's winter. It's okay if things feel different and not ideal right now."
Acceptance is not:
- Agreeing with
- Being passive
Acceptance is an active choice and you do it only because you've decided the costs of constantly fighting something are not worth the toll on your mental health or inner peace. It's amazing how much mental and emotional space opens up once we stop focusing on fighting, and turn more often towards allowing and acting upon the 'controllables'.
Access the DBT handout on Radical Acceptance here.
5 Expansive Practices for Inner Peace
If you find yourself having a hard time with the lull of the season, consider implementing the following practices in your life for inner peace. It can be difficult to fully commit to behaviour change, so you may consider setting a timeframe to experiment with a few of these; notice what you observe and adapt as needed.
- Choose to lean into a slower pace of life.
Do you have less social opportunities compared to warmer months? Outside of the usual recommendations to schedule hangs with friends, you might consider focusing on spending time on other pursuits you don't typically have time for. For example, start a new book, create, seek professional development opportunities, get serious about your fitness journey, journal, start an engaging TV series, or plan a vacation.
Use the time to self-reflect and evaluate what ways of thinking/daily habits are working for you vs. hindering you. The 'power of two' helps you focus on being consistent with only two changes or two new practices/skills at a time. Generally, it takes eight weeks to build a habit; start there, observe, reflect, and re-evaluate before moving onto your other pursuits.
- Listen to podcasts.
Education and learning are ways we keep our brain 'fresh' and young. Consider topics that interest you or those that are relevant to making your life better. Ideally, choose credible hosts who have credible guests to ensure you're consuming quality content. Learning through podcasts is a leisurely way to expand your mind through new perspectives, critical thinking, and *bonus* becoming a skilled conversationalist by studying how others interact and bringing new ideas to the table.
- Find joy in each day.
This suggestion is not to minimize or distract from your stressors. The commitment and practice of finding something to like about each day is shown to booster mood and buffer against stress (Pressman et al., 2009). Finding enjoyment in different parts of your day can have a big impact on buffering stress and growing inner peace - even if they are small moments. For example, taking a moment to feel the freshness of clean, cool sheets as you crawl into bed at night; or the smell of ground coffee beans in the morning; or the hot water on your back in the shower. Try letting yourself just be there.
- Practice gratitude and mental rest.
Less thinking about gratitude, more feeling it somatically. Drop into your body sensations when reflecting upon the parts of your day that spark joy and inner peace. Close your eyes and notice sensations of light and warmth that radiate within you when you focus on the things you already have that you're truly grateful for. Let this gratitude be your fuel that drives you forward to create inner peace. Seek ways to get more of what you're grateful for if it's lacking. Above all, do yourself a favour and give yourself permission to be where you're at. Mental rest is a necessary part of recovery from stress and it becomes a lot easier when you accomplish little things each day that you promised yourself you would. If you're perpetually dissatisfied, you might benefit from setting more realistic expectations.
- Harbaugh, C. N., & Vasey, M. W. (2014). When do people benefit from gratitude practice?. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9(6), 535-546.
- Kwong, M. (2015, Mar 5). SAD science: Why winter brings us down, but won’t for long. CBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/sad-science-why-winter-brings-us-down-but-won-t-for-long-1.2981920#:~:text=About%20two%20to%20five%20per,effects%20of%20our%20chilly%20moods%3F
- Novotney, A. (2023, December 18). Feeling nostalgic this holiday season? It might help boost your mental health. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/mental-health/nostalgia-boosts-well-being#:~:text=But%20even%20more%20than%20serving,giving%20us%20a%20natural%20high
- Pressman, S. D., Matthews, K. A., Cohen, S., Martire, L. M., Scheier, M., Baum, A., & Schulz, R. (2009). Association of enjoyable leisure activities with psychological and physical well-being. Psychosomatic medicine, 71(7), 725.
- Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The journal of positive psychology, 1(2), 73-82.