Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
To live our healthiest life, most of us try to eat a nutritious diet and fit in exercise several times a week. While these are undoubtedly effective ways to care for your physical health, it’s mental health that we seem to be neglecting. In fact, millions of people are affected by a mental health condition each year in the United States, per data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and these numbers were only made worse by the pandemic. According to a study published in the journal The Lancet Regional Health — Americas, depression rates across the U.S. tripled in the early months of 2020, affecting 1 in 3 adults as opposed to the 1 in 5 it was affecting before the pandemic.
As a result of these stark increases in depression rates, mental health is finally starting to get the spotlight it deserves. “During the pandemic, more people than ever before have reported experiencing symptoms of an anxiety or mood disorder, and for many of those individuals, this is the first time they’ve struggled with their mental health,” explains Saba Harouni Lurie, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. “It took a global health emergency throwing the entire world off-balance, but now there is a more widespread societal push for everyone to take steps to improve and maintain their mental health as part of a healthy lifestyle.”
Mental health is incredibly important, not only because it directly influences how we think and feel but also because it affects the way we interact with the world around us. “Depression and anxiety can put a strain on relationships, on your career and on your physical health,” Lurie notes.
Unfortunately, wintertime can be especially challenging for people coping with mental health issues. Not only is it colder outside, but there are also fewer daylight hours and opportunities to spend time outside, which has been associated with a reduction in anxiety and depression, among other health conditions. As such, it’s important to be especially kind to yourself during this time of year and look for ways to nurture your mental health as well as your physical health.
Here, experts share their best tips for keeping your mental health in check this winter.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
You shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of caring for your mental health alone. When things feel too overwhelming to handle, it is important to seek help. Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, suggests reaching out to a friend or family member or consulting a therapist. “Talk to others, join support groups, seek out interactions to decrease isolation and increase opportunity for shared experiences and normalize thoughts and feelings,” she says. “Individuals who seek help and apply learned strategies are more likely to experience mental health stability and effective management of mental health needs.”
Fill your plate with nutritious foods.
You know that healthy foods are beneficial for your physical health, but you may not realize just how important they are to your mental well-being. One study published in BMC Medicine analyzed 67 patients undergoing treatment for depression and gave half the patients nutritional counseling. After a 12-week period, the group that altered their diet showed a reduction in depression levels. London-based integrative nutrition health coach Lianna Nielsen recommends focusing on eating whole foods — green and colorful veggies, clean proteins, healthy fats and whole grains — because these can be major mood boosters. “Excess processed foods, sugar, caffeine and alcohol can increase anxiety levels as well as symptoms of depression, ADD and ADHD in certain people,” she warns. “Experiment in your kitchen and pay attention to how food makes you feel not just physically but emotionally, too.” She recommends starting by adding more green and colorful veggies to each meal.
Research has shown that physical movement and being outdoors in nature help with anxiety and depression, and this is especially true in the cold winter months, according to Lurie. In fact, getting your heart rate pumping is one of the simplest ways to keep your mental health in check this winter. “As it gets colder, we have a tendency to want to hunker down, but that often looks like less physical movement and less time outdoors,” she says. “That, combined with the feelings of sadness and hopelessness that many people feel due to the shorter days, can make the winter a particularly challenging time.” Whenever possible, she recommends setting aside time to go for a walk outside to boost your mental health during the wintertime.
Getting your recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night is crucial for your physical, mental and emotional health. Unfortunately, the wintertime can be inconducive to a healthy sleep cycle, especially around daylight saving time. Sahar Esfahani, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and director of the Maryland CBT Center in Bethesda, Maryland, recommends focusing on behavioral sleep strategies, such as setting a bedtime and a wake-up time that is consistent and regular. She also suggests trying to avoid napping during the day or evenings because this can disrupt sleep patterns later in the evening.
Check your vitamin D levels.
If you’re feeling increasingly tired and run down for seemingly no reason, it may be a good idea to ask your doctor to run a blood panel to see whether you might be low in vitamin D. Also known as the “sunshine nutrient,” we glean most of our vitamin D from being outdoors and exposed to sunlight. An estimated 41.6 percent of U.S. adults are deficient, per research published in Nutrition Research, and even more so during the wintertime when there’s naturally less sunlight. “Vitamin D difficulties can contribute to fatigue and lack of energy, which in turn can also impact your mood and leave you more vulnerable to depression,” Esfahani says. If you do find that you’re running low on vitamin D, she suggests supplementing with 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day, depending on your doctor’s recommendation.
Cultivate a mindfulness practice.
There’s never a wrong time to establish a mindfulness practice that includes peaceful activities such as meditation, breathwork, gratitude or journaling, and doing so can help you keep your mental health in check this winter. Each of these techniques has been shown to elevate one’s mood and reduce depressive feelings. A mere three to five minutes a day can make a huge difference in a very short period, Nielsen says.
Cut back on alcohol use.
While you might initially feel a mood boost upon having an alcoholic beverage, it is a depressant, which means that the aftereffects are more likely to worsen mental health, especially depressive symptoms, according to Mendez. “Rather than depending on drinking as the provision of enjoyment, focus on the pleasure of the gathering and the company and connect with others by nurturing relationships,” she says. “Being in an alert and mindful state promotes well-being.”
Try cognitive behavioral therapy.
If you notice that your mood symptoms are worsening and you’re feeling less and less engaged in activities that once brought you joy, a technique known as cognitive behavioral therapy may be worth a try. “CBT is an active evidence-based style of therapy that teaches you skills and strategies to improve mood by focusing on shifting negative beliefs with more helpful or balanced beliefs,” Esfahani explains. “CBT also uses a process called behavioral activation, which helps individuals list once enjoyable activities or hobbies and schedule a plan to engage in them.” Research, including a study published in Psychiatric Clinics of North America, has shown CBT to be effective in reducing symptoms of depressive disorders, anxiety and other mood concerns.