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Winter Doldrums Getting You Down?

Here are six strategies that can help.

Key points

  • In the winter, it's crucial to have motivational strategies to get moving and out of the house.
  • Motivation is like an solar engine, in which people and human interaction are the “suns” that boost and encourage emotional fortitude.
  • Getting out, being active, and setting goals are the key to surviving the damp, cold, and gray winter months.

Winters in the upper Midwest can be emotionally brutal. The frigid, sub-zero temperatures. Months of snow, slush, and gray skies for weeks and weeks on end can take their toll on anyone’s motivation.

Some folks say they sleep longer and harder. It’s easy to understand why bears hibernate, and why some folks move to sunnier climates through the months of January through March. Winter weather can zap our energy and tank our emotional reserves—unless we figure out ways to trick this system to work better for us.

I like to think of motivation like a solar engine, in which people and human interaction are the “suns” that boost and encourage emotional fortitude. There’s a certain amount of grit we all need to soldier through the seemingly unrelenting dampness, cold, and gray skies. Here are some strategies that can help.

Get out of your head, and into your body.

It’s well known that exercise is a natural mood booster.[1] The brain releases endorphins during exercise, which have been shown to help reduce the symptoms of depression, help with stress and anxiety, and contribute to an overall sense of well-being. Endorphins also are also the body’s natural painkillers[2], so those with arthritis and other musculoskeletal pain can really benefit from exercise—especially in the cold, damp winter months.

Do. It. Anyway.

I get it. Bundling up in puffy winter jackets, boots, hats, and gloves can be a pain. Everything feels effortful, and it can feel so comfy just to stay cozy at home. In the winter months, it’s easy to think of excuses, but the slippery slope of poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle awaits here, like a trap. That’s why it’s important to have intentions and to stick to them.

Make plans to go out with friends. Join a workout group or an art class. Take your computer to a coffee shop, where you’ll naturally feel better for just venturing out of the stagnancy of your home. Invite guests for dinner (what better way to motivate you to clean your house?). It’s important to strategize ways to keep your spirits up when the doldrums of winter threaten to bring them down.

Seek out folks to hold you accountable.

We humans are masters at thinking of excuses for ways to stay comfortable. And while comfort (or hygge, the Danish practice of creating quiet, relaxing pleasure) has its place, we need to have people and systems in place to hold us accountable for setting goals and attaining them. Winter months can feel stagnant, and so can our emotional well-being. That’s why we need other people to help keep us moving and growing.

Our goals don’t need to be huge (in fact, the loftiest goals are the hardest to attain). Joining a book group offers a natural way to learn something new. Learning a new skill, trying a different cultural recipe, or joining a yoga class are all examples of how people outside of ourselves can continue to hold us accountable when we slide back or don’t show up. Personal trainers, therapists, and life coaches are great at this—but if you know yourself well, you can set yourself up with an accountability plan. Commitment is key.

Stop purposeless internet scrolling.

Yes, the internet can be a time suck. We all know this, yet somehow find ourselves getting pulled in. If social media and internet use are important to you, set a timer for the amount of time you spend online, and stick to it.

It’s also important to pay attention to the feelings and emotions that arise with online scrolling and to discern if they’re of benefit to your well-being. I’ve found that sometimes the algorithms align with some of the topics I’m writing about, and it can be helpful to know the latest information. It also can take me down rabbit holes that end up destroying my motivation.

Make a list of your excuses. Then burn it or throw it away.

It can be very cathartic to make a list of all the excuses and life-limiting beliefs we tell ourselves. Seeing them on paper can be particularly helpful, especially if you’re like me, and can even convince myself of their validity. “It’s too cold to go out.” “I’m too tired.” “I deserve a break.” It’s the excuses that are particularly isolating that are the most destructive, especially in the cold, gray winter months—when we need to seek out people the most.

Reward yourself.

When you’ve successfully avoided succumbing to the gray cloud of inertia that winter brings, it’s important to seek out ways to treat yourself. You got to that workout class? Excellent! Buy yourself a latte. You’ve finished that project you had been putting off by enlisting the help of a friend? Have a drink to toast this accomplishment. You’ve researched and planned for something—a healthy meal, a vacation, the start of a new hobby, or a new venture—and it feels great to celebrate the fact that you didn’t let yourself stagnate. A massage, a hot soak in the tub, a night out, or any other “high five” you can give yourself will go a long way.

When we reward ourselves, the brain chemical dopamine is released. Dopamine is the natural “happy hormone” that makes us feel good and accomplished, and gives us the motivation to keep doing what we’re doing—and when we’re in the middle of the winter doldrums, that’s a great thing.




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