Health

A Guide to Staying Ridiculously Happy This Winter

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Between the family obligations, the weather, and the nagging feeling that the football team you coached this season is about to fire you, winter is stressful.

When people experience stress, they experience it physically, emotionally, and cognitively, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Marla Deibler of The Center for Emotional Health. Basically, there’s no part of your body and brain that gets out of this one, and you're left to just deal with a bunch of fight-or-flight instincts.

But fear not! there are ways to manage the stress and keep a little bit of your July self alive through the winter.

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When you hit the bar, connect with people, not your phone

If you’re escaping work stress or the general malaise caused by slushy-gray-sad-coldness, (which might be what you’re up to if you’ve made it through the sleet to a bar in the winter months), then you need to actually escape, says Bartender of the Year Ivy Mix, of Brooklyn hotspot Leyenda. “Rather than getting lost in Facebook or Instagram, put down the cell phone, get up, connect, and communicate with people around you.” Winter might be one of the most times of the year, but as Mix points out, whoever’s in that bar is probably going through exactly what you are. Either way, talking to them is definitely going to be better than sourly staring at your college roommate’s freakishly perfect Instagram life.

Dr. Deibler agrees. “More time spent on social media can lead to a decrease in mood,” she says, noting that there have been studies that back up this claim. “Social media is a very artificial capture of what life is like,” she says.

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Try not to get hungover...

“First off, nothing makes people less stoked on life than being hungover,” Mix notes, confirming everything you've ever felt. “Nobody wakes up in the morning after a night of drinking and is like, ‘I’m so hungover, I feel like a million dollars!’ My advice for avoiding a hangover: don’t do shots. Just don’t do shots. Shots are bad.”
 

... and plan a solid day-after if you do

Oops, you did all those shots. “If you do go out and overindulge during the holidays -- which happens -- then in the morning, get up and go hang out with the people you overindulged with,” Mix says. Wait, what? Aren't you trying to avoid the misery? Well, there's some advantage to relieving your stupidity (or awesomeness, depending on how many shots you took). “You don’t have to suffer through the feeling of ‘Oh my God, did I say that? Did I do that?’ all alone. Do it with the people who you were with the night before -- that’s the comfort blanket that will make it better.”

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Resist the temptation to stay in bed all weekend

“A lot of us tend to shut in more during the winter, but maintaining activity is a good mood lifter,” Dr. Deibler says. And even cooking counts as being more active, than, say, letting Netflix just keep hitting your screen with another episode of Master of None (brilliant though it is).  

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Watch your sugar intake...

One of the most important elements of maintaining a steady mood is keeping an eye on your glycemic index, says Karen Wang Diggs, author of Happy Foods: Over 100 Mood-Boosting Recipes. “If you’re feeling crappy, you may gravitate towards comfort foods -- cakes, cookies, bags of chips -- but keep an eye on the amount of sugar that you’re taking in, because that sugar intake is temporary -- it’s a shot of energy, but you might start feeling crappy again after 15 minutes.”

... and reach for foods that’ll actually satisfy you

When you DO feel those cravings hit, it's unlikely you'll be able to resist forever. So be prepared to reach for a healthier version of what you desire. “If you want to maintain an even mood throughout the day, focus on good-quality protein and quality fats -- when you take in good, healthy fats, it’s good for your mood and also your brain function,” Diggs says. “If you can give up eating sugar in the morning, that’s ideal -- keep some hardboiled eggs in the refrigerator instead. Those will quickly stabilize your sugar, make you feel really satisfied, and after just a few days of eating like this, you will notice that your mood will shift.”

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Actively de-stress yourself

GIve yourself permission to engage in “regular stress management, such as exercising, relaxing, yoga, getting massages, watching movies, listening to music -- whatever activities you find de-stressing,” Dr. Deibler suggests. “This doesn’t mean giving yourself license to engage in excessive alcohol or drug use, however. Although you may find drinking pleasurable and relaxing, alcohol consumption can contribute to depression.” You know it makes sense, even if you know you might overindulge occasionally anyway.

In this way, you get to choose whether or not you’re going to be happy this winter. Not that you should give up booze entirely, unless it's actually a problem for you; just know that it can lead to negative feelings over prolonged use.
 

Get some sunlight

As tempting as it might be, the Dracula approach probably won't make you feel better during the dark days of winter. “Daylight really does affect our mood,” Dr. Deibler says, which sounds like a perfect excuse to catch a flight south on a depressingly gray January weekend. But if that’s not in the cards, you still have options. “Research has shown that as little as 10-15 minutes of sunlight can contribute to positive mood changes. Making time to be out in the daylight is a helpful thing -- even if you have to get your sunlight in on a lunch break, do it by taking a walk around the office. Those full-spectrum light boxes have also been shown to help.”

Start a new project

Psychiatrist Dr. Ash Nadkarni, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, suggests making a list of activities that help you get out of the house and spend time with your friends. “Take a cooking class that you schedule in the evenings when it gets dark, or learn to ski on snowy weekends,” Dr. Nadkarni says. “Alternatively, take up new interests or hobbies -- learn to play a new instrument, take up a new language, or plan a trip to an exotic location so that you feel motivated to work out. The more you do, the less you avoid, and the more reason you have to debunk negative expectations of the winter.”
 

Lean into your bad choices

Winter is the time for comfort foods, baggy sweaters, and extra-caloric cocktails. If you decide that you’re going to choose to overindulge during the cold months, then do it with some glee. “If you want to go all out, then just give in to the fact that you might be hungover a little more, and that you might have to wear stretchy pants for a little bit. If you’re doing it, then do it,” Mix says.

In other words, if you really can't escape the winter blues, the best approach might be to lean into the season and count down the days until spring.

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Jess Novak would like to spend the entire winter on a beach, eating cashew butter and petting a French bulldog. Follow her fantasies on Twitter @jesstothenovak and Instagram @jtothenovak.