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Feeling Powerless: Melting Away the Winter Weather Blues

winter-photoThe winter blues affect us all. Short, chilly days, early sunsets, and dark, blistery cold nights offer limited opportunities for warmth, sunlight, routine outdoor activity, and Vitamin D. What's more, that unnerving and unpredictable Winter Storm watch has us glued to our favorite news channel, ready to derail us at any moment from our work, travel, exercise, and social routines, against our will, leaving us feeling helpless and not in control of our own lives.

Uncertainty is the root of anxiety; it's human nature. We naturally feel anxious and unbalanced in the face of uncertainty, whether it's applying to college, financial instability, caring for a sick family member, relationship woes, or having our weekly plans - and in many cases, our livelihood - cast aside by Winter Storm Juno and the icy travel conditions and snows to follow. The key to mental equilibrium is acceptance of the things we cannot control and the ability to slow down our thoughts and emotions by problem-solving and weighing the evidence for and against our worried thoughts.

For example, while you may be unable to make it into the office for that important meeting or project deadline, it may be helpful to reason that our bosses and co-workers will likely understand since they are in the same boat as we are, instead of worrying endlessly about the ramifications of our unfinished work. And while it is possible that a call to a friend or relative that goes straight to voicemail may mean that he or she is in danger, perhaps that friend or relative simply lost power, or perhaps he or she is making the most of the unplanned "vacation day" with a warm bubble bath or an impromptu family movie night.

During this period of uncertainty, it is important that we all take care of ourselves... and each other... the STOP AND COPE coping tips below are a good place to start.

1. Shift Your Focus - When you're feeling tense or stressed out, you may get the urge to mentally replay your worries over and over in your mind. Shift your focus to something more positive. Remind yourself of something that makes you feel good. This can be a place you find relaxing and peaceful (e.g., a favorite beach or park) or maybe for your kids, a place where they had fun recently (e.g., an amusement park or baseball game).

2. Take Deep Breaths - You can also shift your focus to your body. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down, and concentrate on your bodily sensations and on your breath. Take long, deep breaths from your diaphragm; try inhaling slowly through your nose for five seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth for seven. Exhaling longer than you inhale deepens your breathing, which helps calm your nervous system. To enhance your mindful breathing, you can say a mantra as you focus on your breath (e.g., "one... relax, two... relax"; "breath in calm, breath out stress")

3. Open the Door and Get Some Fresh Air – You've been cooped up for days... of course you're feeling on edge! Go outside, maybe take a short walk (if it's safe where you are), and get some fresh air. Most importantly, get back into your routine as soon as possible. Don't let your stress or fear derail you from getting back on track with the things that you enjoy and the things that are important and fulfilling in your life.

4. Play a Game or Do Something Fun with Your Family - Schools are closed and the nasty weather conditions provide a unique opportunity for family bonding time. How often are we stuck at home, perhaps with no power (e.g., phone, TV, Facebook)? Spend time together as a family, talking, playing board games, building that fort in the living room the kids have been asking about for weeks! Or watch a funny movie together if you do have power. When we're doing something fun - smiling and laughing, it's pretty hard to feel anxious. Find the silver lining and turn this stressful event into a fun and positive family bonding experience that the kids will remember forever.

5. Anxious Thought Busters – When we're feeling stressed out, we have anxious, exaggerated thoughts; we tend to overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening and underestimate our own abilities to cope. Give yourself (and your kids) a pep talk. Identify your anxious thoughts and "talk back" to your "Worry Bully" (we all have one!) by coming up with more helpful, realistic coping thoughts (e.g., "I have been in worse situations than this before and have been able to manage just fine", "What would I tell a friend in this situation?", "I can rely on my friends and family if I need help", "The power will be back on soon")

6. New Adventures – Sometimes we can get stuck in our daily routine and not take the time to stop and think about our overall stress level, how we are balancing our lives, and perhaps scheduling some time for fun. Think of this "down" time as an opportunity to break free from your weekly routine. Start planning some dates for your next family vacation or perhaps a romantic weekend getaway!

7. Draw or Write – Writing down your anxious thoughts can help relieve some of the stress caused by repetitive worry, especially at night before bed when our "Worry Bully" tends to rear its ugly head and disrupt our sleep. Write down your anxious thoughts or fears on a piece of paper, put the paper aside, and re-visit your list in a few hours. Your worried thoughts may not seem so bad in the morning. Coach your kids to write down their worries, as well, or express themselves through drawing.

8. Close Your Eyes and Imagine Your Peaceful Place – Create your own utopia or relaxing place in your mind and go through each sensory experience – what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. Perhaps make a special soothing playlist for your iPod and play some relaxing music in the background.

9. Open Up to a Parent or Friend - Share your feelings and don't be afraid to ask for help. Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings, as well, and to ask questions if they are feeling scared. Help each other and your neighbors.

10. Problem-Solve – Write down (or say out loud) the steps you are prepared to take to manage stressful situations that may arise (e.g., power outage, road block, running low on food, no public transportation, house or car damage). We are generally better problem-solvers than we give ourselves credit for, especially when we are feeling stressed out. Slow down your thoughts and emotions by following the 5 problem-solving STEPS below:

  • Say the Problem
  • Think of Solutions
  • Examine Each Solution (pros and cons)
  • Pick a Solution
  • See if it worked

11. Exercise – You haven't made it out to the gym in days, so you probably have some pent up energy. Take a break, walk up and down a few flights of stairs, do some push-ups or sit-ups at home, or sign up for that Zumba or kickboxing class you've been dying to try. No matter what's going on in your life, exercise will always make you feel better. Try it out, and rate your stress level before and after on a scale of 0-10!

This article was written by Adam S. Weissman, Ph.D,the Founder & Executive Director of the Child & Family Institute in Scarsdale and Manhattan. He completed his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, his M.S./Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers, his internship at the NYU Child Study Center, and a 2-year post-doctoral fellowship in child/adolescent psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Weissman is a nationally-recognized expert in CBT for youth anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and ADHD, and an accomplished clinical researcher with nearly 20 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, 3 edited books, and over 50 professional presentations.

Disclaimer: Although Dr. Weissman is a board member of the Westchester County Psychological Association (WCPA), the views in this article are his and not the views of WCPA.

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