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January and February can be mentally challenging for many women, with the holidays past and the “winter blues” setting in. If you did not see loved ones over the holidays or partake in usual festivities due to Covid, this winter might seem especially difficult and lonely. Thankfully, self-care can be a helpful practice to help combat these feelings. You can approach self-care physically, emotionally, and mentally—and it is often so much simpler (and less expensive) than we imagine!

When you understand why this season is hard, it can help you pinpoint what forms of self-care you could benefit from. This time of year can be difficult for several reasons, but addressing each of them individually can help lift your spirits and make you feel more like yourself.

What is self-care, really?

Self-care is often misunderstood. When people hear “self-care” an image of manicures and massages often comes to mind—but that is rarely what it looks like. This picture of indulgence is why some people shrug off self-care—some even think self-care is synonymous with selfishness. But self-care doesn’t inherently require you to spend more money, and it doesn’t need to be luxurious. True self-care is just about doing things—often simple things—that charge or fill you, as opposed to things that drain you. Essentially, self-care ensures you aren’t pouring out of an empty cup.

Self-care can be physical, emotional, or mental. Physical self-care is making sure you take care of your body. This includes things that seem obvious but aren’t always—especially if you’re in a busy, stressful, or sad season of life, these things can be some of the first to go. Brushing your teeth, ensuring you are properly nourished, staying hydrated, showering, moving your body, getting enough sleep, and maintaining proper hygiene all fit into this category.

Self-care doesn’t mean you need to be by yourself. Emotional self-care, especially, involves a social component. It includes enjoying time with friends or family, free play with your kids, or getting involved in your community. Lowering expectations on yourself also falls into the category of emotional self-care: ordering takeout more often or keeping meals simpler, answering emails on your own schedule, hiring out some housework or letting the toys stay out on the floor for one more night. Discipline and planning ahead can help with this, too—not letting your laundry pile up if you know this will overwhelm you later, or meal prepping over the weekend to keep your weeknights less chaotic.

Mental self-care can include personal and educational activities like reading, journaling, or listening to podcasts or music. Doing continuing education or staying involved in a part-time job might actually be self-care for a full-time mom. Taking time to do some of these things without trying to multitask can be extremely filling. Activities like book groups, art classes, or even just a deep, thoughtful conversation can combine the emotional benefits of social self-care with mental self-care.

Thinking about self-care categories when approaching winter

It can be helpful to think about these self-care remedies as separate categories dependent on what you are actually struggling with. You might need self-care to address how you don’t get enough alone time, whereas someone who lives alone might need self-care to combat loneliness. These require two very different self-care solutions. You could be burned out from the busyness of the holiday season, or sad because you miss the social busyness of the holidays; those two situations would need different self-care solutions. Depending on what’s gnawing at you, you might need a little of both.

Below you’ll find common reasons this time of year can be so difficult, followed by a self-care antidote for that particular issue. If this time of year is hard for you, think about why specifically that is, and consider your specific situation, as well as your personality, before deciding which self-care options might be best for you.

Dark and cold

Even in a non-Covid normal year, the post-holiday winter months can be a real struggle. Part of that struggle is the simple fact that for those of us in the northern hemisphere, this is the coldest and darkest time of year; January starts shortly after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This means, in most places in the United States, it’s dark when you get up in the morning, and it gets dark in early evening or late afternoon. For those in the Midwest and Northern states, January and February tend to be extremely cold, making it hard to do outdoor activities. The upshot: we feel unhealthy, our bodies may be more prone to sickness, and we’re missing the endorphins which, as Elle Woods would say, make people happy.

The antidote: physical self-care

Even if it’s cold and dark, make a point to get outside, regardless of the weather in your area. As the Nordic saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” (and they certainly have some chilly temperatures!) You may have to bundle up, but for the mental health benefits, cold gear may be a worthwhile investment. Moving your body and getting fresh air can do wonders for your mood. Especially if there is some sun peeking through the clouds, try to pop outside to sip a cup of coffee in the morning or for a quick walk on your lunch break. The sun is the best source of Vitamin D, and low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to depression.

Lack of socializing

Though the weather is similar from December to January in any given place, the general mood shifts dramatically after the new year. At the end of the calendar year, we have three big holidays in Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. This means that most of us, even in Covid times, have more socializing than usual (even if it was via Zoom or outdoors). The stark contrast between the socializing and events of the end of the year and the usual loneliness of the beginning of the new year can feel demoralizing.

The antidote: emotional and mental self-care

Although it might feel easier to stay cozied up in your home and hibernate for the remaining winter months, make the effort to connect with friends and family. Even if it’s via Zoom (a chance to connect with those far away!) or a walk outside with coffee in hand, some human interaction is generally better than none, especially as we come off of what is normally a very social time of year. Invest in some wine tumblers, and go for an evening walk with your gal pals, or bundle up, and sit in someone’s open garage or on their apartment deck if that’s what you have to do to get together. If you’re playing with littles all day and crave intellectual stimulation, try starting a remote book club or listening to and discussing a podcast series with a friend.

Nothing to look forward to

Another reason why January and February can be so hard is because there aren’t any big holidays or nation-wide vacations to look forward to like there are in the fall and early winter with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years or spring break and summer break in their respective seasons. The sense of something social or fun on the horizon offers a sense of hope, excitement, and purpose. It allows us to endure the monotonous days knowing something enjoyable is coming. When there’s nothing imminently on our calendar that we’re looking forward to, the days and weeks can start to bleed together. It may start to chip away at our sense or hope and excitement, leading us to feel down.

The antidote: emotional and mental self-care

While you may not have something to look forward to right now, you can use this time to plan something for the future that you are excited about. Whether it’s planning a trip or even just a special get together with your family or roommates—anything that gives you something to look forward to. Even if the event you’re planning isn’t till next year, just putting it in the books and working on the details is sure to give you a sense of excitement and alleviate boredom. Try doing research on your potential destination or plans, or learn a language or develop a skill that will serve you well when the event occurs (that bonfire would be a lot more fun with someone to play the guitar!)

Missing the festive season

Decorations, lights, traditions, candles, food, and special music make the holidays festive. So when the holidays are over, all of our five senses feel the deprivation. The bleakness after the bright lights, abundant meals, and cheery music is stark. We may feel down simply from missing these cheery things after getting used to them.

The antidote: emotional self-care

While the whole world might not be living like it’s a holiday anymore, that doesn’t mean you can’t. Make it a point to live a more hygge lifestyle—indulge in simple pleasures that actually will make a big difference for your mood. For instance, listen to music that puts you in a good mood, keep lights up (or hang more!), burn pretty candles you really enjoy smelling and looking at, bake treats just because and set them out on a pretty plate or tray. These small indulgences can offer a big bang for your buck when it comes to your everyday happiness.

This time of year can be a challenge for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean we have to white-knuckle our way through it. Make a point to take care of yourself in this hard season—we can all use it after the year we’ve had.