Despite being the shortest month of the year, February can be a notoriously difficult time for those of us living in the Northern hemisphere. Although Wiarton Willie, Ontario's very own weather-predicting groundhog, forecasted an early Spring on February 2nd, we've still got a few weeks of deep Winter ahead of us. If the February Blues are hitting particularly hard this year, practicing activities that cultivate mindfulness can be a great way to stay grounded and power through the difficult days that can arise during mid-Winter.
At this point, it's almost a cliche to proclaim exercise as the cure-all remedy for stress, but it's frequently invoked advice for a reason: staying active is an incredibly powerful tool to fight the Winter blues. Especially for those of us with sedentary lifestyles, incorporating movement into everyday life is critical, even on the coldest days.
But don't worry — this doesn't mean you need to start waking up at 6am for a run in sub-zero temperatures. Winter exercise will look different for everyone! Even a short walk can have profound effects: a study at Harvard found that brisk walking for thirty-five minutes a day, five days a week effectively improved symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Maybe you enjoy morning yoga videos, an evening skate, or a mid-afternoon Zumba class on zoom — as long as you're incorporating movement into your day, you're doing yourself a favour.
Mindful Music Listening
Meditation has been proven to have significant positive effects on mental health outcomes for people of all ages. However, if traditional meditation practices aren't really your thing, you may have better luck trying out mindful music listening instead. Music can be a source of distraction and escape, often passively put on in the background to make work or studying go by a little more seamlessly. However, when approached from an active perspective it can offer similar benefits to meditation, serving as a tool for introspection, focus, and relaxation.
Take this piece of advice from Good Therapy: pick a piece of music that relaxes and intrigues you, find a comfortable position, try to listen to it without judgment or self-critique, and reflect on how the song makes you feel. Chances are, you'll come away from the experience feeling more connected to yourself and have a greater appreciation for the music.
Build a Morning Routine
What you do first thing sets the tone for the rest of your day, so getting your morning right is key in making sure you have a healthy, productive day. Eliminate factors that can make mornings overwhelming by putting together a series of tasks you perform every day when you first wake up. Bolster these habits by making an effort to wake up at the same time every day, a practice which has proven health benefits, including better digestion, stronger immunity, and increased emotional stability.
In addition to picking a couple of things that you do every morning, Science of People also recommends creating a "Not-To-Do List," of tasks that you know will distract you from your goals. This could include scrolling on your phone in bed, cooking an elaborate breakfast, or checking your email before your shower. Thinking hard about the things that consistently set you astray from your intentions is just as critical to figuring out what your intentions are in the first place.
Do Something With Your Hands
Picking up a hobby which involves working with your hands can have a positive impact on your mental health, even if you're not the craftiest person. Research shows that doing tasks that require us to work productively with our hands — such as cleaning, knitting, drawing, or gardening — can significantly contribute to maintaining a healthy mood. Doing so allows you to control your environment and feel more grounded in the world around you, while also giving your brain an invigorating break. Hands-on hobbies are also great foundations to build communities upon; by joining an online group that shares your hobby, you can unwind while also getting some much needed, low-pressure social interaction. If you're looking to start a hobby like knitting but don't know where to begin, start by finding a community like Yarns Untangled, a Kensington Market-based shop that offers a weekly zoom stitching night, as well as lessons to get you started.
As hard as it can be, try to let go of the feeling that the product of your handiwork needs to be "good", per se. If you reframe your goal to be enjoying the experience of making something, rather than making something of worth, it will be easier to relax and reap the benefits of hands-on play.
Take A Break From The News
One of the most difficult but effective practices to enact to clear your mind is limiting your intake of social media and the twenty-four-seven news cycle. Of course, staying up-to-date on current events is necessary in order to be a responsible community member, especially with regards to COVID-19 related information. However, immersing yourself in a constant deluge of information keeps your brain's "fight or flight" response constantly activated, keeping you from ever truly relaxing.
As put by Dr. Jeremy Rezmovitz of Sunnybrook hospital, by taking a break from social media "we can enhance our lives and learn through real world experiences...by taking the time to think and reflect on our feelings." Setting a time in the afternoon or evening when you no longer refresh your feeds or check your favourite news site is a good way to make sure that you find time to unwind, while staying informed.