If winter is getting you down, consider putting a spring in your step—literally—to feel more energetic and happier.
It’s not hard to recognize people who are sad or depressed from the way they carry themselves: slumped shoulders, lowered gaze, downturned mouth, and shuffling gait. Happy people, in contrast, stand up straighter, make eye contact, smile, swing their arms, and bounce along at a brisk pace.
Short days and post-holiday doldrums can take their emotional toll; temperatures in the single digits may worsen the seasonal blues by limiting our exposure to sunlight and causing us, when we do brave the elements and venture outside, to bow our heads, hunker down against the cold, and pull our arms in tightly against our chests.
Posture, it turns out, can affect mood. The results of some recent research point to a connection between how we walk and how we feel.
In one study, undergraduates (who, due to their ready availability and incentives to participate, are the most commonly tested subjects in psychology experiments) were told to attempt to move a gauge as they walked on a treadmill. For one group, the gauge moved when they bounced along at a fast, “happy” clip; for the other, the gauge responded to a slowed, “depressed” pace.”
After being given a list of 40 words—half negative, such as “ugly” and half positive, such as “happy”—the subjects in the depressed group recalled more of the negative words. Another study by the same research team, which used people actually suffering from depression rather than randomly selected undergraduates, produced similar results when half the participants were told to slump. Subjects instructed to sit upright recalled fewer negative words.
Although more research with larger samples (each of the above studies tested fewer than 40 subjects) would be required to draw any broad conclusions, the results make intuitive sense. They also lend support to the framework underlying cognitive-behavioral therapy: making even small changes in behavior can help alter moods.
If walking isn’t an option–say you’re sitting at your desk and feeling in a funk with a deadline looming–try smiling. The act of putting on a happy face can activate neural pathways to boost serotonin and dopamine, two of the neurotransmitters targeted by most antidepressant medications.
To be clear, none of these microphysical adjustments will cure a serious case of depression. If you suffer from more severe, intractable mood problems, please seek professional intervention. But for the garden variety blahs so common this time of year, why not try walking happy? It just might help.
It’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean the holidays, although their approach certainly can make you want to crawl into a dark cave to escape the strains of White Christmas and the twinkling lights reminding you of how behind you are with your preparations.
I’m talking about the winter blues.
Lots of us go to work before sunrise, sit all day in a windowless office, and drive home after sunset, never seeing daylight. The hours of prolonged darkness can wear on you and even—for those individuals whose biological clocks make them susceptible—cause what’s known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It most commonly occurs in late fall and early winter and diminishes as the days grow longer, but SAD also can affect some people in spring and summer, causing agitation and anxiety rather than the lethargy typical of winter SAD.
Symptoms of winter SAD, like other forms of depression, include a loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities, irritability, withdrawal, lowered motivation and drive, changes in appetite (either overeating and carbohydrate cravings or loss of appetite) and sleep patterns (either excessive sleeping or insomnia), muscle tension and pain, feelings of heaviness in the limbs, lack of energy, poor concentration, and negative thinking.
Winter SAD is most prevalent at Northern latitudes and among women. Its causes are still speculative, with hypotheses suggesting imbalances in melatonin, circadian rhythms, and serotonin.
As with all neurobiological conditions, brain chemistry may make the symptoms unavoidable. But how we respond—our behavior and thoughts—can mitigate the distress we experience.
For instance, if you focus on how tired you feel in the morning, you’re likely to pull the covers over your head and give into the urge to hibernate. But if you can manage instead to drag yourself out of bed and take a brisk walk outside, you’ll feel more energetic and motivated for the rest of the day.
One of the best antidotes to a depressed mood is to engage in a variety of pleasant or competence-inspiring activities. Go out for a leisurely meal with friends or family, or stay in and cook one to share. Play with a pet. Get some exercise. Learn a new language. Practice a musical instrument. Listen to music. Solve a crossword puzzle. Knit a sweater. Peruse Pinterest or Houzz to get ideas for a redecorating project. Clean out a closet. Visit a museum. Go to a movie or play. You may need to adjust your activities to accommodate the weather, but you can still find plenty to occupy you.
Modifiying your attitude is another way to boost your mood. Instead of focusing on the shortened days and punishing wind chills, find enjoyment in a steamy mug of hot chocolate or a crackling fire. Try to accept the moment instead of wishing for it to be different.
Maybe as a consequence of my regular mindfulness meditation practice (which helps cultivate acceptance), I haven’t dreaded the advent of winter as much this year as in the past. But I do sometimes catch myself slipping into old thinking habits, as I did one day at my last CSA pickup of the season. Inundated with apples, I felt the negative thoughts starting to build: “I don’t like apples very much. I wish it were still summer. I want peaches. I’m sick of apples. I want watermelon.”
You don’t need to sell me on the merits of an apple a day. But it wouldn’t be my snack of choice, except as an occasional vehicle for peanut butter. On the other hand, apples in dessert form—gussied up with cinnamon and nutmeg, topped with a crust or a crumble, and served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream—are an entirely different story. So I decided to adjust my attitude and stop complaining.
You know the old saw about what to do when life gives you lemons? Well, the season was giving me apples.
So I made apple pies.
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