6 Steps to De-Stress and Reverse Winter Blues

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Twenty-somethings are high-energy, fun-loving, and carefree–right? We go to brunch twelve times a week, and grow mustaches faster than we grow organic produce–posting the whole ordeal on Instagram. But, we also nearly become homeless trying to rent in housing-impacted cities where the jobs are. We have tons of student debt that we can’t pay off. When we finally get our first jobs, we are typically underpaid. And, for those of us still in school, we’re often dealing with final exams while working.

The millennial stereotype is neither fair nor accurate.

Winter holidays are free vacation days. It might seem like your schedule is micromanaged, but think again. This is your time to recharge, guilt-free. Here are some simple habits with proven recharging capabilities.

Hang Out with the Family Dog 

Feeling lonely at home? You could get stuck in an awkward high school reunion at the only bar in your hometown. Or, you could pet a corgi.

One of the most overlooked healing powers of visiting home during the holidays is hanging out with your family pet. Animals have astounding healing powers. And no, it’s not just because puppies are cute. One study saw humans’ oxytocin levels double when petting and talking to their dogs. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that’s released when we kiss, have sex, or socially bond. It’s known as the happiness hormone. This same study also saw spiked levels of beta endorphins, the “natural painkillers associated with runner’s high.” Many studies have additionally found increased levels of serotonin in people interacting with dogs–the same chemical sold in antidepressant drugs.

When you’re stressed about finals, money, or your job search, petting an animal for a few hours can do wonders for your health. If you don’t have a pet, chances are, you’ll hang out with a friend or family member during the holidays who does.

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Walking in Winter is More Important Than Ever

Don’t underestimate the power of nature. You don’t need to take a $10,000 trip to Machu Picchu to achieve zen.

Walking has been shown to reduce risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and possibly coronary heart disease. What’s even better, is these are all health benefits of running. Moral of the story: you don’t need to wheeze in front of your neighbors while you try to run around the block after your Christmas dinner. You can walk–which doesn’t burn the same amount of calories–but still burns a ton of calories while reducing your risk for chronic disease and releasing endorphins. Remember, walk briskly. Intensity walking sees mental health benefits and weight-loss. (Though, even casual strolls can boost your mood with fresh air and movement.)

Walking in winter matters even more because people tend to get depressed, suffering from “the winter blues,” also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Lack of light, changes in ions, genetics, and changes in brain chemistry during a season switch are all possible causes. We also tend to exercise less and eat more during the winter months, turning our “blues” even bluer.

Staying inside all day will only deepen your blues. Try going for a brisk walk, even for just twenty minutes. The mental health benefits of walking will surprise you.

de-stress
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Green Spaces (Not Just Forests and Parks) 

A little green goes a long way. We shrug off placing an orchid or succulent at our desks, but happiness is often in the details.

Placing potted plants in your home or at your work space may help fight off colds. A study in Norway observed illness rates falling by more than 60 percent in offices with plants. The Dutch Product Board for Horticulture also conducted a study showing that adding plants to offices decreases fatigue, colds, headaches, coughs, sore throats and flu-like symptoms.

Green spaces are a key part of urban planning because of the correlation between healthy cities and green cities. According to the Guardian, “A 17-year study by Exeter University found that UK householders living in greener urban environments are likely to have lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of wellbeing.”

Your stroll around the park during finals might seem pointless. You could be using this time for studying, finding a job, or taking an extra shift at the job you already work! But, your productivity depends on your mental health. Spend twenty minutes walking through a patch of forest, or take a bike ride. Humans need nature. And not just that Yosemite mountain desktop background on your Mac computer…

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The Sleep Dilemma 

When you’re stressed, it’s difficult to sleep. When you don’t sleep, it’s difficult to de-stress.

Many college students and job-seekers pull all-nighters. Sitting in front of your computer for 8-12 hours to write your 10-page paper at the last minute will hurt your performance. Same with sending job application after job application until it’s 1AM. And, don’t even get me started on Netflix binge-watching during “study breaks.”

According to NewsInHealth, “If you haven’t slept, your ability to learn new things could drop by up to 40 percent. ‘You can’t pull an all-nighter and still learn effectively,’ Dr. Walker says. Lack of sleep affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is key for making new memories.’”

More and more, sleep is linked to how we form and store memories. This means long-term memories, but also day-to-day short term memories, such as the Chemistry notes you memorized for the final that determines whether or not you pass the class.

Remember: the time you spend sleeping is a huge investment in your overall success. Without sleep, you are working harder, not smarter.

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Good Mood Foods

I remember stress-eating an entire box of brownies before finishing my senior thesis. What a mistake! The essay took me forever to write, my ideas were out of focus, and I was shaking from sugar and coffee. Here’s why I would do it differently.

When we want comfort, we crave cookies, bread, butter, and mac n’ cheese. When we’re feeling light and energized, we want crisp, cold fruit. And, when we’re tired or stressed–alcohol and coffee. Foods are linked to mood. That’s why we sometimes catch ourselves “eating our feelings.” Here’s a quick guide to eat your way to happiness:

  • Serotonin: Complex high-carb meals like buckwheat, whole or sprouted wheat, quinoa, steel cut oats, barley, lentils, beans, brown rice, squash, pumpkin.
  • Energy: Bananas, eggs, asparagus, nuts, salmon, peanut butter, kale, lemons, quinoa.
  • Sleep + Calmness: Leafy vegetables, avocados, turkey, oatmeal, salmon or tuna, dark chocolate, eggs, avocados, cashews, and yogurt.

Eat to create your work mode, your sleep mode, or your happiness mode. It makes a difference, whether you’re in between meetings at your first job or taking extra classes your senior year of college.

de-stress
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Take Breaks, or A Quick Day-cation

Taking breaks is really, really good for your productivity. Forget the vegetable snacks, the exercise, and the healthy sleep for a second. Simply taking a break to watch a puppy video, sit with your thoughts, step outside, talk to a friend–whatever–is good for your brain.

Even micro-breaks give your brain a significant boost. When you’re staring at a computer screen, a 15-second break every ten minutes reduces fatigue by 50 percent.

It’s  also well-known that Americans take the least vacation days internationally, and how badly this impacts our health and productivity. Taking a day-trip during winter break is a great way to utilize vacationing’s long-proven health benefits. One quarter of Americans don’t use all of their vacation days.  However, research shows “when the brain can think positively, productivity improves by 31 perecent, sales increase by 37 perecent, and creativity and revenues can triple.” Driving to a new town, to a your favorite nature spot, or even taking a staycation is a great way to reap the benefits of a vacation day during your winter break.

Whether your working on college apps, studying for the LSAT, prepping for finals, or juggling work and life–healthy habits can contribute to your success. No, eating a handful of almonds won’t automatically transform you into a superhero. Take it week by week. Try out just one or two of these habits if you’re feeling blue this winter. You may start to notice your mood is a little brighter, and your work a little smarter.

 

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