A standard morning routine consists of a quick bite to eat, a shower and a brush of the teeth before hurrying out the door. Non-standard morning routines are often linked to enhanced, near superhuman productivity. They’re framed through stories of awe focusing on high-profile people such as Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill or Benjamin Franklin. They advocate reduced sleep. Rising early. Smoking a pipe. Saving the world. They’re well intentioned and nice in theory, but starting such a routine — let alone sticking to it — is a difficult task.
That’s because — for most of us — the reward of increased productivity isn’t enough to entice us out from under the sheets when not completely necessary. If we’re not a Silicon Valley extraordinaire of high-flying politician, the incentive isn’t enough; we don’t have to rise early to get to work on time. However, there is another incentive. As the clocks fall back and the nights draw in, our morning routine can have a surprising impact on reducing the low mood and low energy that accompanies winter blues.
Before we begin on exploring how and why a change of morning habit can increase your mood and wellbeing, it’s first important to note the difference between so-called winter blues and Season Affective Disorder (SAD). Naturally, as sunlight reduces, so do vitamin D levels. As does the amount of light that reaches the pineal gland (responsible for regulating the body clock). Consequently, the majority of us will feel more lethargic and less sprightly as our cardiac rhythm slows. However, those who suffer from SAD experience symptoms commonly associated with clinical depression (loss of pleasure, feelings of worthlessness, irritability, anxiety) during the winter months.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, this routine is designed to help. Following the five below habits won’t only allow you to survive winter, but to thrive in winter:
1. Wake Up Earlier Than Necessary
The way you start the morning frames the mental approach to the rest of the day. Wake up with just enough time to quickly shower and run out of the door, and your cortisol levels increase, you feel rushed, you feel stressed, and you carry this into the day. By waking up with the intent to put aside some time to focus purely on your wellbeing, you’re starting an important habit of self-compassion.
To perform the tasks on this list, you’ll need more time. Depending on how quickly you usually get ready in the morning, set your alarm 30 or 40 minutes before your usual time. I personally give myself at least an hour and a half before the time I need to leave the house. If you find that it’s practically impossible, you may need to go to sleep earlier the evening before. Scientific studies have revealed that, thanks to our body clock, we perform better at various tasks at different times. So it’s beneficial to replace the sluggish hour or so of before bed with an extra hour in the morning, a time when our minds are most alert.
2. Make A “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast”
Our diets have an important role to play in all aspects of our health, including our mood. The “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast” (as I call it) targets three areas linked to winter blues: carbohydrate cravings, omega-3 and vitamin D. It’s important to start with a meal that satisfies these areas and keeps you full, in turn keeping your blood sugar levels steady.
Studies show that those who have a high-protein breakfast stay full for longer with reduced feelings of hunger. A study by Heather Leidy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the MU School of Medicine, discovered that, in overweight teens, a high-protein breakfast also reduces weight-gain and stabilised glucose. Combine this with a complex carbohydrate, and your first meal will provide you with plenty of energy to start the day right and stave off cravings (this applies to later meals, too).
3. Consider Supplements
Studies have also shown that both omega-3 (an essential fatty acid our body doesn’t produce) and vitamin D have a role to play in our brain’s production of serotonin. A deficiency in either has been linked to genetic pathways crucial to brain development. Both can be found in foods; the former with fatty fish (or avocados for non-meat eaters) the latter with eggs, cheese and mushrooms.
Vitamin D is, of course, also found in sunlight. However, especially in winter months, our levels can drop to a deficiency, especially with modern lifestyles that see most of us working inside for the majority of the day. Considering a lack of vitamin D can cause depression, it’s worth being vigilant on how much you consume via your diet.
I’d advocate supplements for both omega-3 and vitamin D, at least as an insurance policy. You’ll hear people argue that vitamin D deficiency is overhyped, however, one study found that one in four Americans were found to be deficient. Plus, a major global study advised the British government to fortify foods with vitamin D due to the number of Brits with low-levels. The same study also revealed that vitamin D can reduce the chances of colds and flu.
4. Try Light Therapy
As mentioned above, our cardiac rhythm slows in winter. Our ancestors would’ve simply slept a lot more, entering a mini-hibernation. It’s not viable to do that in the modern world, unfortunately. The link to such energy levels and seasons is down to the amount of light, and is widely regarded the key factor in SAD. Fortunately, light therapy (also known as phototherapy) has been proven to be a highly successful form of treatment. A 1998 study of 96 patients showed significant improvement when using light therapy.
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a particularly bright light for 30 minutes per day. Such light boxes contain 10,000 lux, which is around 100 times brighter than standard indoor lighting. The beauty of using one of these lights is it gives you no option but to sit and read in front of it for the allocated half an hour. What that means for the benefit of the wellbeing morning routine is that you can use this time to read (I’d opt for either spiritual text or something light-hearted), journal, sip coffee and eat your “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast.”
It’s important to note light therapy should only be used in more serious cases. Before considering whether to invest, if you have a mild form of winter blues, simply getting out and about, taking a walk in the sun (when it’s there!) may be enough to instigate noticeable improvements.
5. Avoid Your Phone In The Morning
Over 40% of Americans check their mobile phones within five minutes of waking up. Such is the attachment to smartphones in modern society, there’s even a name for the fear of being without one — nomophobia. There’s more and more evidence that our constant state of “connection” is making us depressed and anxious. We’re always “on call.” We’re always “checked in” or “online.” That means that to truly dedicate yourself to this morning routine, to really take some time for yourself, you need to avoid checking your phone. In any capacity. No Facebook. No emails. Buy an alarm clock and use it instead of your phone. Choose to connect on your terms.
Last but by no means least… The reduced levels of anxiety and depression that come with daily meditation can only be beneficial in dealing with feelings of low mood and lethargy. I won’t go into those details just yet, as there’s more to come later, but even taking 10 minutes in the morning to sit quietly with your own thoughts can lighten your mood.
It may also shine a light on the belief patterns and interconnected thoughts linked with winter blues.