Content by Sara Dalrymple, RSW MSW BA Psych., BANA Clinical Therapist
Keeping Cool When It’s Cold
We’ve all been there – fresh off the excitement of the holiday season, January and February roll in and slowly our mood starts to deteriorate. We begin to feel blue and lethargic, and long for the sunshine of summertime. We may begin to withdraw from social events, and opt to stay in bed in our cozies watching Netflix while falling further into the “February Funk”. Our efforts towards self-care and hygiene may begin to slip, and our motivation to be productive and get tasks done dwindles. Our engagement in the positive activities we typically enjoy sits at a stand-still, and we don’t quite realize what’s making us feel this way.
Some throw around the dated term “seasonal affective disorder” or S.A.D. Some believe it to be the lack of vitamin D due to sun-less days. Some consider that there are fewer options for activities because of the cold and unpredictable weather. Some believe that the heightened excitement of the holidays paves way for disappointing and dull months to follow. Whatever the cause may be, it remains true that we are all affected differently by this dreary season.
For those of us that feel low this time of year, it may prove helpful to develop a plan – especially for those who experience this feeling every year. Whether or not you are feeling blue this time next year, it wouldn’t hurt to have a plan prepared for coping through the February Funk so that you can continue to function in a way that is normal for you outside of winter. But what things should be included in this plan? How can we feel better during a time of year that is not optimal for most of us?
You may have heard the clinical term “behavioural activation”. If you haven’t, don’t fret. The term itself is more complicated than the task at hand. Simply put, behavioural activation is engaging in positive activities in order to lift your spirits. You may react to this by saying, “If it were that easy for me to engage in positive activities, I would be right now”. And understandably so; if you are dealing with low mood, it is symptomatic to withdraw from enjoyed activities.
Take the expectation of “wanting to” off the table. You are not going to want to engage in activities when you are feeling down. But your low mood doesn’t get a vote. Behavioural activation may require you to force yourself anyways, regardless of your in-the-moment desire to cancel plans. You probably won’t feel like doing the activity beforehand, on your way there, or even during the first few minutes of the activity. Expect to feel this way.
Not wanting to do something is not what is stopping you from doing. There are likely hundreds of things you already do that you probably aren’t thrilled about doing. Does anyone really want to take out the trash? Scrub the tub? Wash their husband’s underwear? Go to work 5 days a week? Somehow, you manage to do those things, so what’s so different about positive activities?
It’s your MINDSET. It is the dread of doing that stops you from doing. When you begin to accept that you don’t want to – even give yourself permission to feel this way – but you force yourself to do it anyway, things will begin to change.
Behavioural activation requests that you engage in positive activities in order to improve your mood. The engagement in the activity serves as a distraction from the way you are feeling, or the things that are bringing you down. It may help you to get things done and off your to-do list, or it can get you connected socially (which has been shown to contribute to positive mood). Some of the activities may increase your endorphins, actually stimulating “feel good” hormones in your body and thereby lifting your spirits. But what defines a “positive” activity?
Positive activities come in two forms:
1) Something that you get enjoyment out of (fun, exciting, creative)
2) Something that makes you feel like you have accomplished something (productive, competent)
Start by coming up with a list of as many positive activities you can think of. Things that you have always wanted to try; things you used to do but somehow fell out of the habit of doing; or things that you currently love to do but want to do more of. The more activities on the list, the better. Most of us wouldn’t want to sing karaoke every day, or couldn’t afford to get a pedicure every week. The more options you have to pick from, the more likely it will be that you will actually pick one and do it! The context of your life may change every day, so don’t expect to want to do the same things over and over each week. Variety is effective.
Next, you will want to actively schedule these activities into your day or week. Put them in your phone as reminders, or on your calendar as if it is an important appointment. If something unexpected comes up that makes you unable to engage in the activity (low mood won’t count here), reschedule the activity right away. When the time comes to engage in the activity, don’t think about it, just do it. Just like you would take out the trash. You can huff-and-puff on your way there, but keep an open mind about allowing the activity to shift your mood once you’re involved.
When planning the activity, think of SMART goals.
SPECIFIC: the more specific you can plan the details, the more likely it is that you will keep accountable (think who, what, when, where and why).
MEASURABLE: in order to monitor your progress towards completing the activity or goal, you will want to develop a way to measure how far you have left to go. Calendars, checklists, skill-improvement levels, daily tracking of your mood – these are just some examples.
ATTAINABLE: you want your goal for positive activities to be realistic. If you work 5 days a week and have a family, it may be unrealistic to expect that you will go for a jog 4 nights a week. Be honest with yourself, and start small. If the goal is too easy to achieve, slowly and incrementally increase the frequency of your goal. It’s better to set your aim low, achieve it and feel good about yourself than to set your aim too high and miss your mark.
RELEVANT: is this in line with what you want to do, big picture? Do you truly want to improve your mood, or have you settled for feeling blue and have no intent of actually changing?
TIMELY: consider the time it takes to engage in the activity, and how much preparation is included. How frequently to you want to engage in the activity, and is it something that can be repeated?
Behavioural activation is just one tactic that can help improve your mood, not just in winter months. If you anticipate that you will feel this way next year, begin planning for positive activities – big or small. Being proactive puts you in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to wait until 2021 to begin – you can start now!
It may also prove helpful to talk to your primary healthcare professional, and explore options such as psychotherapy or pharmacology. If you are open to therapy, you can begin the referral process and plan to get started when the weather begins to shift.
Also check in with your basic needs, all of which play a role in your mental health. Where do you stand in terms of nutrition, exercise, sleep, hydration, and hygiene? Are there areas you can improve and become more structured? Taking care of your physical self is step one in improving your mood.
For a more specific discussion of self-care, feel free to check out our blog: titled “Self Care: Beyond Bubble Baths”.
For a helpful workbook on improving mood, we recommend you visit the free online resource: Centre for Clinical Interventions. Under their “Helping Yourself” menu, you can find loads of self-help modules that walk you step-by-step through building skills and tools to improve different areas of your life.
Remember, the weather will shift soon. It may not be a question of changing your whole life; maybe it’s just a matter of getting through two snowy months.
Fursland, A., Byrne, S. & Nathan, P. (2007) Back From the Bluez. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions