How often have you—even those of you who are good about exercising spring through fall—let that program drop during the wintertime? Bad mistake. Keeping active during the winter is one of the most important keys to minimizing stress. And there are so many ways to do it. My own favorite is to go walking briskly first thing in the morning through the neighborhood on a winter day. Not only is this healthy but it keeps you in touch with your neighbors and with the seasons. With all the trees bare, notice how the landscape looks different. Suddenly you can see all sorts of things that were covered up by summer's greenery. For curious people like myself, that is an extra treat. If you find motivation difficult, enlist a friend to go walking with you. For indoor sorts, treadmills and stationary bicycles provide a fine alternative.
Get more light
Even if you're not one of those for whom winter presents special problems—I'm talking here about people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or its milder variant, the winter blues—a bright home cheers people up and decreases stress. If you do find that your energy plummets in the wintertime and that you feel down and despondent, you may suffer from SAD and may actually benefit from special light fixtures that have been shown in research to cheer people up during the wintertime. (For more information visit www.normanrosenthal.com.)
Manage your stress carefully
If you are one of those people who knows that winter is a hard time for you, be careful not to undertake projects with a spring deadline. That is all too easy to do during the summertime when you may be feeling at your peak energy level. Resist it, and delay deadlines wherever possible, into the spring and summer when your energy will help you get them done. It is no coincidence that spring cleaning generally occurs in the spring.
Be careful of the holidays
Too often the holidays become a time for performance—all the things you have to do in order to consider yourself a good mother, wife, or hostess. So be sure to keep your holiday plans within realistic limits. Remember, the most important thing about the holidays is the spiritual elements: closeness to family; reaching out to others, especially those less fortunate; meditation or prayer; and sharing good times. Others should not be criticizing the quality of your holiday décor or running white gloves over the surface of your mantelpiece, so neither should you.
Plan to get away
One obvious way to deal with winter stress is to leave it behind. Sometimes early planning can buy you a good deal on a holiday package. For those who don't have to adhere to the school schedule, post-holiday sales can also yield terrific bargains to the Caribbean and other points south. Don't forget to laugh
Laughter is one of nature's chief stress relievers. Read the funnies, watch your favorite comedy show, swap jokes with friends—all good strategies for not taking the winter, or life in general, too seriously.
Surround yourself with music
It should come as no surprise that stores and malls play cheerful music around the time of the holiday season. Fill your house with whatever type of music you enjoy. One of my friends creates a new CD of his favorite songs each Christmastime and plays it often throughout the season.
In one research study, my colleagues and I found that the smell of lemons lifted the spirits of people with winter depression. Lemony smells may work for you too, whether in furniture polish, perfumes or potpourri. But if they don't, find out what does. One fragrance that I can count on to cheer me up is almond essence. I have liquid almond-scented soap in all the bathrooms of the house and always enjoy its fragrance whenever I wash my hands.
Reach out to friends and family
Humans are social beings and warm contact with those you care about has been shown to reduce stress. In one study, for example, a person asked to do mental arithmetic showed a smaller increase in blood pressure (an indication of how stressed she was) if accompanied to the task by a friend. And for those of you on bad terms with friends or family, consider extending the olive branch, both for your sake and for theirs.
Consider doing some volunteer work
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so, volunteer work is extremely satisfying, showing that happiness does not necessarily involve making money. Rather, it often comes from feeling a comfortable part of the fabric of the society in which we live.