How To Fight Cabin Fever? Tips to Survive the Long, Cold Winter Days

With the holidays at an end and a long stretch of cold days ahead, it may seem like an eternity before March 21 arrives signaling the official end of winter. Hard as you may try to revel in wintry activities and keep your spirits up, it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for yet another snow day and early sunset – especially if you’re a mom.

“Any time of year, moms lose themselves,” says Barbara Heller, a psychotherapist, clinical social worker and author of 365 Ways to Relax Body, Mind and Soul (Storey Books, 2000). “Their needs get put at the end of the list, but it happens even more so in winter when there is a loss of light and more constraints in terms of activities.”

What Causes Cabin Fever?

Post-holiday letdown is a big factor for many people. “My favorite time of the year is the run up to the holidays,” says Samantha Carter of Greenwich, Ct. “Everyone seems to be in good spirits, and there always seems to be an air of anticipation and excitement.” In January, however, things take a sharp downturn. “The holidays have finished and there seems to be an anti-climax,” she says. “The weather is cold and spring seems a long way off.”

For others, like Beth Freeberg, of Roslyn, N.Y., being stuck indoors is the trigger. “What I like least about winter is not getting to go outside as much,” she says. “Being house-bound on multiple snow days with kids who just want to play outside is fun for a while, but then I get cold and wet and need to head inside for a cup of hot cocoa.”

And many people are simply affected by the loss of sunlight. “I dislike the colorless aspect of winter in January,” says Charlotte Tilson, a family therapist in Sacramento, Calif. “It really drains my energy level.”

Down in the Dumps

When you have the winter blahs, it can affect your whole life, not just your mood. “You may feel slightly depressed,” says Stephanie Tourles, an herbalist and esthetician who has written nine books including How to Feel Fabulous Today! (Storey Books, 2001) and Calm Me Down (Storey Books, 2003). “Many people find themselves overeating, losing focus of their exercise programs, don’t get excited about anything anymore or tend to be alone more than usual. Nothing major, just not quite up to their usual energetic par.”

It’s important to realize that the season can have such a global effect, and that you’re not the only one going through this. “Everyone feels down in the dumps from time to time,” says Tourles. “It’s a natural part of life.”

Once you recognize these feelings and know that you’re not alone, you can begin to make some small changes that can mend your sense of well-being. Experts agree that small changes to your diet, activity and mindset can turn down into up almost immediately.

These types of changes, while simple to define, can be anything but simple to put into effect. It often helps to think about making these changes in two different ways, Heller suggests. “Try to break your life down into two areas: refocusing everyday activities with your kids and making time for relaxation and self-nurturing on your own,” she says.

Relax and Renew With Your Kids

“Activity restriction is one surefire way to bring people’s mood down,” says Tilson. “It helps to keep meaningful activities going on when it’s cold outside, especially good social ones to boost everyone’s mood, like having moms and kids over for a play date and making things inside.” She suggests incorporating seasonal crafts and learning activities to emphasize the positive aspects of the season.

Heller suggests creating a calm and soothing environment in the house to foster relaxation. “A lot of things that calm us down energize and refocus us,” she says. “At almost any age it is important to model some relaxation with our children. You don’t have to sit and meditate – though that would be wonderful.”

She suggests the use of upbeat music to refocus pent-up energy with a parade, dance party or conga line, for example. You can take the tempo down a few beats to create a quiet, calming environment as background music to a creative activity such as cooking, clay or other tactile, centering projects.

Outdoor time, even completely bundled up with just your face exposed, can go a long way in renewing your energy, as well. “Fresh, crisp air and bright sunlight will really elevate your mood,” says Lorna Cheifetz, a psychologist practicing in Phoenix, Ariz.

She suggests taking an early walk with your children. “Getting outdoors in the morning is a way to reset your body clock and extend the day as long as you can,” she says. If outdoor time is impossible, she recommends simply increasing your exercise to change your metabolism. “You can push a stroller in the mall or take a walk or run on your own,” she says.

“Service to others seems to be a common aspect of people’s lives who feel happy and fulfilled,” says Tilson. “Winter offers many opportunities for children, families and grown-ups to show compassion for others and build their own reserves of well-being by being of service to those who are less fortunate.” You can donate time to a food bank or designate a closet clean-up date with your kids, culminating in a trip to a local shelter to donate old clothes and blankets.

Seasonal Celebrations

Another great way to fight off the gloom of winter is to bring a little summer into your life. Organize an indoor beach party, complete with friends, bathing suits and summery games. You can also organize an outing to a local indoor pool, tennis court or indoor swing set showroom/play space.

Conversely, you can embrace winter and the great things it has to offer: Warm, fuzzy clothes, a fire in the fireplace and lots of soup and hot cocoa are some things that come to mind. Designate a pajama day, complete with slumber party games such as Twister and Scrabble, where everyone can laze around with no obligations.

And don’t forget the resources of your local library, mall and bookstore. Many places offer story times, indoor movie afternoons and other organized activities that get you all out of the house and into socializing mode.

Nurture Yourself

It’s easy to lose yourself in the duties of parenthood and general grown-up responsibilities, and often taking care of ourselves is the first thing to go when there aren’t enough hours in the day. The catch is that if you don’t take care of yourself, chances are other things won’t get taken care of as well or as easily, and that takes its toll on your whole family.

It may seem as though your day is too packed to take time out for you; however, once you take a good look at your day, you’ll find there are small pockets of time here and there that you can call your own. Long ago, someone advised me to take a few moments each day to “find my center.”

Unfortunately, it took years before I realized that it didn’t count if I was finding my center inside a peanut butter cup or cream-filled snack cake! Let’s face it, snacks only feel good as long as the taste remains on your tongue. Once the sugar high is gone, you’re worse off than before.

A much more productive avenue is to find yourself in activities that make you feel good about yourself in a more lasting way. Scheduling an exercise or academic class or book group is ideal, but if you can’t block off a regular time slot, you can still find a half an hour here or there to talk with friends, read the paper or a good book, take a bath, have a cup of tea or do an exercise video.

Of course, when you’re most stressed is the hardest time to come up with creative ideas to take care of yourself. Heller suggests taking a moment at the end of the day to “review your day and think about how it might have been more relaxed, calm and focused.” She recommends creating an index card list of things you find relaxing. “When you’re feeling most stressed, take your list out and choose one of these things,” she says. “Some people even suggest having a relaxation drawer or box with items such as an aromatherapy candle, book, bath salts or a journal that you only turn to at relaxation times, making it easy to have stop points throughout your day.”

And most importantly, recognize that this, too, shall pass. After December 21, the low-point of lightless days, the days start getting longer, and you’re on your way to enjoying all the wonders that spring has to offer.

Quick Pick-Me-Ups

  • Have Faith – A daily prayer or affirmation can start your day on a positive note.
  • Meditate – Take a few quiet moments at the beginning or end of the day to focus your mind, body and spirit.
  • Smile – Smiling is contagious and it costs nothing.
  • Human Contact – A handshake or a hug make you feel more connected to others.
  • Keep Busy – A very busy person doesn’t have time to brood or be unhappy.
  • Cultivate a Hobby – Learn to play guitar, crochet, garden or paint with your kids.
  • Wear Vibrant Colors – This is a simple, yet effective way to boost your self-esteem and energy.
  • Exercise – Movement has a positive effect on negative stressors.
  • Laugh – Laughter produces relaxing, mood-enhancing endorphins that help you to better deal with whatever comes your way.
  • Follow the Sun – Even five minutes a day of sunlight can replenish your vitamin D and energize you.
  • Eat Right – Look for vitamin D-fortified foods such as soy or rice milks, egg yolks and cold water oily fish such as cod, mackerel and salmon.

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