Managing the Winter Blues

Full disclosure: A few years ago I was diagnosed with Bipolar II, general anxiety disorder and a severe case of social anxiety disorder. Things can be tough sometimes, and medication (so far) hasn’t been a good option for me, but most days are good days. Cognitive therapies have helped me a lot, as well as a supportive partner and family, and things have only gotten better since my diagnosis. It’s easier to cope with an illness you know.

Still, winters are hard. Whether it’s the blues (or the mean reds) winter amplifies whatever negative emotions I’m feeling so that it’s hard to hear anything else. To whit, I’ve come up with some tools to help me manage and quiet those negative emotions, and I thought I’d share them with you in the event that they might help you as well.

Routine

The most important tool in my arsenal. It’s hard for me, because I’m not a big fan of routine, but I’ve found it to be integral to my mental health. Getting up at a similar time each day, going through a morning routine, a work routine, an evening routine, going to bed at a similar time each day – it takes some of the guess-work out of living when living is hard, and it gives me a framework to hang my emotions on so that I can examine them better.

Quality of Life Scores

CIHR and Crest.bd have a great online tool for measuring and tracking the overall quality of life of people with a bipolar disorder. It’s meant to be used once a week by filling out a short questionnaire about habits and moods, and it stores that data for comparison. I’ve found it to be a crucial tool in objectively measuring my disorder, and that it’s given me great insight into what is an acceptable quality of life for me. If my score is too low I know that I need to focus my efforts, change my tactics, or get outside help. It also allows me to hone in on problem areas in my life as they arise, which helps me to manage my symptoms, especially in winter.

Light Therapy

My Mum bought me a Litebook last winter and it’s helped immensely on dark mornings. Light therapy has been a great way to help me manage my sleep schedule when it threatens to become erratic. Litebooks can be pricey, but the odd sale at Costco or Amazon can bring the cost down immensely.

Healthy Foods

Eating well is particularly hard for me to do during the winter months, so I make it easier on myself by eliminating some of the prep work. I know that buying pre-sliced vegetables or bagged salads or bottled smoothies aren’t the most environmentally friendly options, but sometimes that’s the only way I can muster a reasonable diet. I allow myself to buy a little more ready-made during the winter, and use my waning fall energy to can or dry or freeze a store of food to get me through winter.

Exercise

I’m lucky enough to have been gifted an exercise bike, and keeping my heart rate up while the snow’s flying past the window has never been more convenient for me. Before the bike, I made time in my schedule for yoga, or running in place, or repetitions of basic strength exercises while I watched an episode of the Simpsons. Anything that gets my body moving also helps my mind. I’m a couch potato by nature, and I absolutely prefer sitting still to moving around, but I’ve learned that physical exercise in integral to my mental well being and so I treat it like medicine and dose it out accordingly.

Colour

In Ontario, the Big Grey starts around mid-November. The sky is grey, the trees are grey, the ground is grey. It’s abysmal, and energy-draining, and so I like to inject a little more colour into my life starting in late fall. I use my favourite rainbow facecloth in the shower. I put the bright throw blanket on the couch. I change my desktop to something vibrant. I bust out my paintbox, or play pinball, or knit wild patterns. Anything to counteract the greyness accumulating outside my doorway. Snow helps with the grey, but has a different negative effect for me, and I have very little control over when it falls.

Keeping in Touch

My social anxiety makes this especially difficult, but the insulative powers of a snowfall makes it absolutely necessary. My natural inclination is to hibernate through winter, to shut out everyone and put my head down and wait for it to be over, but it’s neither reasonable, nor safe, to do so. Reaching out to friends and family, regardless of how sick the anxiety makes me, is the best way to keep my head up, and it makes winter seem to pass faster ( win/win).

My arsenal shifts a little with the seasons, but it all boils down to good self care and trying to stay as aware of myself and my surrounding as I can. I realise that mental illness manifests differently for different people, and what works for me might not work for you. If you’re struggling, please reach out for professional help – it took me a few doctors before I was able to start making steps towards managing my illness myself, and I still have regular check ins to that end.

Wishing you stability, clarity, and safety this winter.

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