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Baby, it’s cold outside! In the thick of winter’s short, dreary days, many of us have come down with a major case of the blahs, and it’s tough to stay motivated. The perfect antidote to seasonal drudgery (intensified by the presence of COVID-19) is an extra dose of TLC. If you’re sad, stuck or stagnant this season, indulging in one of our expert approved self-care tips is bound to lift your spirits.

Stay on Top of Your Mental Health

Like all living things, humans are deeply affected by temperature and sunlight. During winter’s cold, short days we’re more at risk of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Pay attention to common symptoms of SAD, including an increased desire to sleep, a marked drop in energy and an increase in carbohydrate consumption, says Helene Brenner, PhD, a Maryland psychologist and author of I Know I’m In There Somewhere: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner Voice and Living a Life of Authenticity.

“Increasing light with light boxes or compact fluorescents can really help with SAD,” says Brenner. “Now that winter is here it’s harder to motivate ourselves to walk outside, so take advantage of times when it’s light and make it a priority to get out; if you can’t, do another kind of exercise, like a live [online] class,” Brenner says.

Social connection is perhaps the most noticeable joy lacking from our new normal, and for many, it’s taking a toll. Brenner recommends finding creative ways to stay close to those who are important to us. “Social support, and our relationships, are the biggest mediators for sufferers of depression. It takes more of an effort but try making a weekly time to talk to a friend on Facetime or write a note of gratitude to somebody, telling them what they mean to you.”

Honor Your Body with Nourishment

Eating healthfully and staying hydrated may sound like no brainers, but many parents don’t prioritize these basic needs. “I have a family to take care of as well, with never-ending chores and worries on my mind, so I get it,” says Andrea Berez, a Somerset-based registered dietician. “However, if you do not put yourself first and take care of your body, mind and soul, then you cannot be your best caregiver, parent, mom, dad, sister, brother, etc.… Your body needs good nutrition to feel well, balance your mood and emotions and, yes, to help ward off infections. Now, more than ever, you need to take as best care of yourself as possible.”

It’s okay to make room for indulgences; again, balance is key. “Being at home much more during the winter months, especially this winter, with the semi-quarantine we are all living in, be especially mindful of your indulgences. Don’t keep things around that will tempt you,” Berez says. “It’s okay to indulge in leftovers (including dessert and alcohol) for a day or two, but after that, get rid of it. Give some to a neighbor or simply throw it out!”

Sufficient Sleep Boosts Our Mental State

Studies show a strong connection between sleep and our mental state; not getting enough can worsen symptoms of depression and increase stress. To harness the benefits that come with solid sleep, follow these tips: “Do not have caffeine too late in the day, try to limit or quit smoking and do not have too much alcohol late in the evening,” says Michele Okun, PhD, research assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. “Healthy sleep habits are promoted by routine. Maintaining consistent bedtimes and wake-times is really important to overall well-being.”

Try turning your bedroom into an inviting and soothing sanctuary, so it becomes a place where you find comfort and solace. “Think about places you have been or seen—like hotel rooms—that make you smile. Put those items in your room to augment that positive feeling. Have bedding that you truly enjoy and keep the room cool and dark when you sleep. Try to keep outside noise at a minimum. You can add a fan or white noise if you live somewhere that is noisy (or too quiet!),” Okun says.

Melt Away Stress with Meditation

Meditation is a proven way to reduce stress and tension and a helpful tool when it comes to mitigating anxiety and depression. To feel it’s benefits, try meditating for 5-10 minutes daily for 10 days, says Shannon Albarelli, PhD, a Summit-based clinical psychologist and certified mindfulness and meditation instructor.

“Begin small and work your way up. I recommend using resources like Tara Brach’s website (tarabrach.com) and apps like Headspace and Insight Timer,” says Albarelli. “There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. All it takes is willingness and a non-judgmental attitude. It’s also important to understand that it’s okay to have thoughts in meditation. The idea is to be a curious observer of your thoughts instead of getting tangled up in them. Learning to meditate is similar to training a puppy, it takes time, patience, kindness and consistency.”

Serving Others Gives Us Purpose

Giving back to others provides us with a greater sense of purpose, which in turn motivates us to take better care of ourselves, says Christine Carter, PhD, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps to More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

“Volunteering is a form of self-care that can really help us deal with uncertainty,” says Carter. “The most powerful way to make ourselves feel better when we’re facing difficulty is to find meaning. Look for ways that tap into your own unique talent, or interest, or passion, whatever that sense of purpose is for you.”

No matter how you choose to positively impact others, identify your why. “I don’t ever say yes if it’s something that doesn’t speak to me,” says Carter. “It only becomes an active form of self-care when I really feel like I’m contributing in a way that is unique.” Often the simplest acts bring us the most joy. “The best way out of helplessness is through helpfulness,” says Albarelli. Try helping an older neighbor with yard work, collecting supplies for families in need or sending notes of gratitude to a first responder.

Instead of riding out the cold winter under a pile of blankets on the couch, honor your body with the movement it craves. We benefit from outdoor light even on cloudy days, so bundle up in layers of cozy outerwear, get outside and get moving. Time in nature is beautiful and healing year-round. Most of all, try to remember self care is not indulgent, it’s a necessity. During one of the most difficult times of our lives, we must prioritize our own well-being, finding joy and comfort wherever we can.

—Heidi L. Borst is a mother, writer and nutrition coach based in Wilmington, NC.