Will this winter ever end? Having to spend extra time indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its new variants can make the season feel even more isolating. And, though the days are technically getting longer, spring feels far away, thanks to the polar vortex affecting much of the country.
Shorter, colder, and darker days can wreak havoc on our body’s internal clock, making us less active. When circadian rhythms are off, our brains adjust, triggering changes in our hormones and fluctuations in sleep and appetite.
But just because you’re feeling low doesn’t necessarily mean you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, says Dr. Lee-Anne Gray, a clinical psychologist. “SAD results from light deprivation,” says Gray, who is the author of Self-Compassion for Teens. Though often associated with the colder, darker winter period, SAD is a form of depression not directly correlated to any specific season. It’s thought to affect about 5% of the population.
For many, the normal winter doldrums have been heightened this year. “The pandemic makes everything feel worse, including mental health problems of all sorts,” says Gray.
How self-compassion can help
For those having a hard time, Gray says that incorporating a self-compassion practice can go a long way. Acknowledging you may feel sad in the winter is a start, she says. It’s okay to remind yourself your productivity and motivation may also drop. Many people, including entrepreneurs and high-powered executives, address this by turning to practices of meditation and mindfulness to center themselves and refine their decision-making and leadership.
“Mindful awareness and self-compassion are associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, and an increased sense of well-being,” says Gray.
It should be noted that practicing self-compassion differs from practicing self-care, however. “Self-compassion is an established form of mindfulness practice, based in [Eastern medicine] traditions, while remaining secular and evidence-based,” says Gray. On the other hand, self-care practices, such as bingeing a TV show or drinking a hot cup of tea, may be comforting but won’t keep your spirits high forever and don’t address deeper mental struggles.
“Self-care encompasses the activities of daily living that contribute to well-being. Self-care could include self-compassion practices—like meditation, reflection, exercise, eating well, or therapy and medical care.”
Incorporating self-compassion into daily life
Fundamentally, self-compassion is about being kind to yourself. That means not pushing yourself to perform at all times and realizing you need some time to yourself. Self-compassion can be understood through following four principles, says Gray: Mindful awareness, self-kindness, shared humanity, and a willingness to take action. These four dimensions, which Gray details in her book, create a more nuanced approach to combating low moods during a pandemic that will undoubtedly stretch into the warmer months of 2021.
Here are a few tips, based on these self-compassion principles.
- Awareness: Recognize early on that there will less light in the winter, which can result in your feeling down.
- Reframe negative thoughts and feelings in a positive light: Practicing gratitude is one technique to adopting a positive mindset. Gratitude practices, which are associated with an increased sense of well-being, can be as simple as writing down three different things you’re grateful for. “It’s free and instantaneous,” Gray notes.
- Identify how you’re connected to others: Gray recommends thinking in terms of community and shared humanity. For instance, tell yourself, “I am not the only one who feels blue in the winter,” or “Remember, many others are impacted by the pandemic too.”
- Customize to your preferences: Focus on what has been successful for you. Says Gray, “Taking steps to relieve suffering can look different for each person. For some, it may require more self-care—time off, relaxation, recreation, and personal care. For others, it could mean seeking professional help or making significant changes to one’s life.”