Got the Midwinter Blues? It’s Okay to Take Care of Yourself

Midwinter can be tough on even the sunniest, most upbeat people. The Christmas lights are gone, it’s cold, it’s dark, and once-pristine snow is getting gray and slushy…kind of like a lot of our moods.

That’s doubly true if you’re at home caring for toddlers and preschoolers. The sheer effort required to get out with the kids (boots, hats, gloves) may mean you’re not getting out as much.

During a recent video chat, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak helped parents in the CatholicHÔM community brainstorm strategies for getting through the winter blues. Their advice? Give yourself a break!

Take a Break from the “Shoulds”

Before the advent of electricity, the dark days of winter were traditionally a time when life slowed down. The lack of daylight forced people to work less and rest more.

You should feel free to embrace that vibe on days when you’re feeling especially “low energy,” Lisa Popcak told parents.

“It’s okay to take care of ourselves as if we were down with the flu,” said Popcak, co-host of More2Life Radio and co-author of Parenting Your Kids with Grace. “This is a day for canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches! Everything doesn’t need to be ‘on’ all the time.”

All of us can fall victim to a case of the “shoulds” now and then: I should be cleaning the house, I should be doing more at work, I should be volunteering more at school. Stay-at-home parents can be especially prone to the “shoulds,” often out of a felt need to prove they’re being “productive” by the standards of the marketplace.

But Catholic theology clearly prioritizes being over doing. Our worth isn’t measured by our economic output. Sometimes, the best thing to do—for you and the people you interact with—is to take a break.

One creative mother gave herself a break from her active kids by inventing a game she called “What’s on My Butt?” While she lay down on the couch, her kids placed various objects on her bottom, and she had to guess what they were. She got a break, and her kids were entertained.

“It’s not about the doing of things, it’s the being together and making a connection that matters,” Dr. Popcak affirmed.


Ask for What You Need

Don’t be afraid to ask your family for what you need to make it through the day.

Maybe due to the example of idealized television families, many of us seem to think that the people closest to us ought to “just know” what we need, Lisa Popcak said. But expecting our loved ones to be mind readers just isn’t realistic.

Be explicit in naming exactly what would help you: “I really need a half-hour break after lunch.” “Could you help me with…?” “It would mean a lot to me if we could spend an hour together this evening.”

You might be pleasantly surprised at how willing your family is to help you out. Even the littlest children will often cooperate with a request that is worded in a way they can understand.


Give Your Body a Break, Too

Catholic theologians have long insisted that our bodies are more than “accessories” to our souls (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #364–365). More recently, brain researchers have increasingly shown how much influence the body has on the state of our minds.

If you’re struggling with the midwinter blues, then, be sure that you’re caring for your body in a way that will boost your mood. As Dr. Popcak writes in Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, three practices are especially important to maintaining our ability to handle external stressors. Those three practices are:

  • Sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need between seven to nine hours of good sleep every night in order to function well. Besides healing and recharging the body, your brain does a lot of its most important “maintenance work” during deep sleep. No wonder it’s so critical for mental health!
  • Exercise. Exercise, especially the type that raises your heart rate and leaves you a little short of breath, releases endorphins (natural mood-boosters) and helps stimulate the growth of the hippocampus—the part of the brain that regulates emotion.
  • Good nutrition. What we eat affects how we feel, physically and mentally. Foods rich in magnesium, zinc, probiotics, and B vitamins all have been shown to have a significant positive effect on our mood. In addition, certain nutritional supplements have also been shown to have as much of a positive impact on mood as some prescription medications.

See chapter 6 of Unworried for details on all of these practices.


Tap into the Power of Prayer

Prayer is often one of the first things to go when we’re feeling down, which is unfortunate, given how ready God is to help us.

Fortunately, your prayer doesn’t need to be complicated; God responds generously to the simplest, most forthright prayers: “Lord, it’s another cold, gray day. The kids are climbing the walls, the house is a mess, and I’m really struggling. But I trust in your love for me; please give me whatever I need to abide in your love today.”


So, to review: Give yourself a break from the “shoulds.” Ask for what you need. Take care of your body. Ask God to supply the grace you need to make it through the day.

These four strategies should be enough to beat your run-of-the-mill winter blues. If you’re struggling with a more serious case of depression or anxiety, though, don’t hesitate to reach out for one-on-one help from a licensed therapist at

Weather Proof Your Brain: 6 Tips for Beating Winter Blues

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            “I just feel so, blah.”  Said Carly, age 31. “Once the leaves fall off the trees, everything gets so gloomy and grey.  I just can’t get motivated and I feel sluggish all day.  When the  snow hits, I just wish I could crawl into bed and stay there until Spring. I joke that I must be part bear, but honestly, the way I feel most of the fall and winter doesn’t put me in much of a laughing mood.”

            According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 6% of people suffer from full-blown seasonal depression and another 20% experience what might be termed a more serious case of “winter blues” that include symptoms like sluggishness, irritability, changes in sleep and eating patterns, weight gain, and difficulty being around other people.

Interestingly, though, winter blues don’t have to be a foregone conclusion.  In sections of Scandinavia that experience “polar night” from November through January experience remarkably low rates of seasonal depression or winter blues suggesting that the problem may not be as much a deeply ingrained biological problem as much as it is a state of mind.  Inhabitants of these northernmost regions of the planet have developed some fantastic strategies for beating the winter doldrums.  Whether you tend to experience more serious manifestations of seasonal affective disorder, or just find yourself dragging through the winter months, here are some simple things you can do–drawn from both the experience of our northern neighbors and the latest research– to not just survive but thrive when the winter sets in.

1.  Celebrate

During the long darkness that descends with Norwegian winter, people have a remarkable number of celebrations, get-togethers and parties.  Although people going through seasonal blues often feel that relationships are a chore, resist the temptation to hide out.  Make a point of getting together with friends even more regularly than you do in the sunny times of the year. Invent a reason to host a party.  Brighten your home with friendship, fun foods, and some festive decorations!

2.  Cocoon

While it is never a good idea to isolate, Scandinavians have a great way to make the times they are home alone more joyful.  They get koselig, literally, “cozy.”  For them, the long winter months are a time for sitting by the fireplace,  lighting lots of candles (at mealtimes and just because) and/or huddling under warm blankets with a warm drink and good books. This is also a great time of year to do put a little extra effort into making your home…homey.  Even if you’re the only one at home, you deserve to live in a nurturing space.  Put some energy into making your home a respite; place that is welcoming and pleasant to come back to.

3.  Get Out!

When they’re tired of cocooning, Scandinavians get out of the house and enjoy winter activities like hiking, skiing, sledding and tubing. If you have seasonal blues or even seasonal depression, winter is a great time to  develop that all-important, abundant-living skill, leaving your comfort zone.  Especially if you don’t like the cold, or the snow, get out of the house and hang around people who do.  Be willing to learn from the example of those who feel energized by the cold weather.  Studies show that people who challenge their comfort zones and are open to new experiences–even experiences that they don’t think they would enjoy–live more enjoyable, fulfilling lives.

4.  Deal with the Past

Moving off the experience of our Norwegian neighbors and into what the research has to say about seasonal depression, we find that many people who struggle with the winter months do so because of bad memories that accompany the winter months.  For those who grew up in chaotic homes or experienced the death of a loved one in the winter months, this time of year–especially with so many major holidays–can be particularly painful.  Psychologists refer to the pain caused by memories associated with particular times of year as “anniversary reactions.”  The root memories causing these reactions aren’t always obvious.  One good way to identify anniversary reactions is to sit with the feelings you are having and write our whatever images or memories bubble up to the surface.  Don’t ask what memories are “causing” your feelings.  Instead, ask what memories attend your feelings and how those memories might be contributing to your gloominess.  Remind yourself that these times are past and make a point of writing out all the ways you’ve grown since you had those experiences and all the things you have to be grateful for in your present.

5. Be Grateful

Speaking of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal (and reviewing your lists regularly) is a proven way to increase your happiness set-point (the natural degree of happiness you tend to experience from day-to-day) by 25%!  Especially if you are experiencing winter blues, make sure you take stock of all the things you have to be grateful for each day, especially the friends and people that make your life a better place to be.

Another way to be grateful is to make what St. Paul calls a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:5).  Praising God, even when you don’t feel like it (which is where the “sacrifice” part comes in) reconnects us with God’s love and providence in those times when we feel lonely and blah.

6.   Get Help

Sometimes, self-help isn’t enough.  If you find that your winter blues are negatively affecting your work, health, or relationships, it is time to talk with a professional.  A mental health professional can help determine whether medication, light therapy, cognitive-behavior therapy (all treatments that have been shown to be affective with Seasonal Affective Disorder) or some combination of these would be most effective for you.  The good news is that whether you are suffering from milder or more serious problems with seasonal depression, treatments are available that can help get you to happier, more joyful place.  Don’t buy the lies that say, “this is just the way I am” or “this is how it has to be.”  With a little help, you can learn to see all the good things winter has to offer and learn to love the gifts it brings.

Dr. Greg Popcak, the author of many books and the host of More2Life Radio, directs The Pastoral Solutions Institute, which offers pastoral counseling by telephone to Catholics around the world.  Learn more at or call 740-266-6461