It appears once again that February has arrived, as it manages to every year, though it wasn’t exactly invited. The world is dark and postures are slumped as people trudge around in floor-length puffer coats, hunching inward for warmth like a dreary colony of sun-starved caterpillars. In New York City, a strained quiet has settled in, punctuated only by the hiss of a thousand radiators.
Every year, troves of self-help articles are published to prepare us for the inevitable “winter blues.” Like struggling “America’s Next Top Model” contestants, we seem to have trouble remembering how to “find our light” in the darker months, each year requiring regular prodding and tips on making it through the season. And maintaining the willpower (and, more crucially, finding the time or money) to keep our moods buoyant, or at least intact, can feel like an uphill battle.
Technically, only about 6 percent of the population of the United States has Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that is commonly understood as a winter affliction, though it can occur at other times of the year. But less debilitating dips in mood affect many of us. The culprit — it is largely believed — is our circadian rhythm, which gets disrupted when the days get shorter and the nights get longer, beginning around the end of daylight saving time.
“During the wintertime, people notice that they’re lethargic, they’re tired and they lose some interest in things,” said Dr. Ravi Shah, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. “And that can be mild and subtle, or it can be more severe.”
There are some tried and true methods for dealing with this: Over 60 clinical studies have demonstrated that light therapy alleviates seasonal depression symptoms. And modifications to diet (Dr. Shah recommends the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on seafood, olive oil, whole grains, fruits and veggies over sugar and highly processed foods), exercise regimens (try to get your heart rate up 20 minutes per day), alcohol consumption (drink less) and sleep (most people need seven to nine hours) are crucial.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, you should consult with a licensed medical professional for diagnosis and treatment. But if it’s novelty solutions you seek, I asked around to find some other winter rituals that might help.
They may, at least, distract you.
Sniff Out Some Herbs
Plant-based remedies are by no means new, with deep roots in traditional Chinese medicine and indigenous cultures, but herbalism has become increasingly popular. Herbal remedies are unregulated by the FDA and many lack strong support from scientific studies, but the uptick in interest among consumers has been “unbelievable,” said Adriana Ayales, the owner of Anima Mundi apothecary in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. For a winter mood boost, Ms. Ayales recommends raw cacao, which she describes as “kind of like a sunshine powder.” Another big seller right now is Anima Mundi’s “Happiness Tonic,” which contains herbs like rhodiola, an “adaptogen” that was traditionally used for stress relief, and St. John’s Wort, which some limited studies have suggested may help treat mild depression (though the latter can interact with a wide variety of medications, so should be taken in consultation with a doctor).
If nothing else, get yourself some lavender. It is a stress reliever (at least, for mice) and it smells great.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
I am annoying even myself with this suggestion, but it has its merits: There’s some evidence that the practice of writing down what you’re grateful for can improve your mood. Advanced practitioners may even find positive things to say about the weather. “I kind of like the winter because it’s an excuse to not socialize, or socialize only at chili nights and holiday parties, which are really superior forms of socialization,” an optimistic friend recently told me. Interesting theory! Maybe it’s worth expanding on … in a journal entry.
Tweak Your Energy Field
Energy therapy is not exactly a science, but reiki and other alternative healing touch practices have become practically ubiquitous. Reiki is even offered at some hospitals as a gentle complementary treatment. But you don’t need to shell out for a private session to “shift your energetic field,” said Aki Hirata Baker, a reiki practitioner and a co-founder of Minka, a social justice-oriented wellness center in Brooklyn.
For urban clients feeling claustrophobic and overwhelmed, squished into globs of stinking humanity on the subway and in other small indoor spaces, Ms. Baker advises going to visualization classes. In her own teachings, she said she asks students: “What’s the strongest color they can imagine, or what’s the strongest material they can imagine?” Then she encourages them to “see that image, the color or the material, whooshing out of their skin to fill up their personal space, so they feel that they have more protection around their body.”
Say Hello to a Plant
Plants may be all the rage right now, but being in their presence has always had therapeutic benefits (and, you know, we need them to breathe). If buying a plant of your own isn’t on the menu, take a trip to a plant store, a greenhouse or a botanical garden and just hang out for a bit.
“When people are able to connect with nature, there are physical benefits,” said Joanne D’Auria, a school tour coordinator at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The garden hosts “Chase Away the Winter Blues” outdoor tours between December and March, as well as tours of their indoor conservatory spaces. “The whole idea of seeing something green and beautiful is very uplifting,” Ms. D’Auria said.
Make a Hearty Stew
Me? I’m afraid of crockpots. They seem suspiciously simple. But cozy soups and stews, however simply made, are undeniably one of the upsides of winter.
“Stews and slowly simmered curries and dals and steamy bubbling stuff just smell so homey and comforting as they cook,” said Liana Krissoff, author of “Slow Cook Modern,” a book of recipes. “And if you’re using a slow cooker, you can kind of get that effect even if you can’t spend the whole day tending a pot on the stove.”
Coming home to a slow-cooked meal after being tensed up in the cold can make you feel taken care of, even if you’re the one taking care of yourself, Ms. Krissoff explained. “Like: Thanks, Morning Me, for thinking to make this. It smells really good.”
Marie Kondo Your Living Space
The new Netflix show “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” suggests, almost convincingly, that one’s life can be transformed simply by folding one’s pants into labor-intensive upright triangles. But decluttering is just generally good for combatting cabin fever. Ms. Kondo, whose 2014 book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” became an international phenomenon, preaches that you must only preserve and thoughtfully organize items that “spark joy,” and politely thank and then discard the items that don’t. I’m keeping my socks though.
Respect Your Nostrils
Scented candles and other cozy fragrance-makers are kind of a no-brainer when it comes to winterizing one’s home, but CJ Powers, owner and founder of Scenthouse LA, an interior fragrance company, has some guidelines.
“I think the worst thing you could do in the winter is fragrance counterprogramming,” Mr. Powers said. By that he means don’t light a candle that smells like the beach. “Embrace the winter, and dive head-on in with comforting, winter fragrances that wrap you in their complexity,” he said.
For affordable options, try a woodsy scented candle like Teakwood & Tobacco from P.F. Candle Co. Or, Mr. Powers offered, just bake a batch of cookies. Alternatively, if you want your body to smell like styrax resin and cedar leaves, perfumes evoking chilly weather are having a moment.
Force Your Friends to Hang Out
When it gets cold out, it’s easy to “cocoon ourselves” at home, said Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship expert. It can also be difficult to drag friends out of their respective cocoons. But Ms. Kirmayer says friendships are, unsurprisingly, “essential for our health and well-being.” (And research shows that loneliness and perceived isolation can affect our mental health.) So it’s worth putting in a little more effort during the colder months.
Ms. Kirmayer recommends weekly “Bachelor” viewing parties, exercise dates or some plain old one-on-one time. Organizing a social gathering can also be fun. Or, as my roommate put it, “psychotically planning a dinner party for 15 people one month in advance means I can think constantly about what appetizers to serve instead of my own gnawing mortality.”
Get Off Your Dang Phone
Do I need an expert to tell you this? We’ve all heard that staring at our phones, computers and tablets all day, every day is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. And although a lot of us don’t have a choice during the workweek, we probably don’t need to spend our off hours looking at Kacey Musgraves’s wedding pictures on Instagram.
Look around. Read a book. Stretch. Give your brain a break.
[If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, go to an emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site (nami.org) for additional resources.]