Updated: Jan 24, 2021
I speak to patients and friends all the time about the rollercoaster emotional state that many of us have been experiencing over the past year. These talks usually begin by traveling down the troubled road of all the fears and sadness and overall weirdness of this particular moment in history. We may dive into feelings of loss and grief because so much has been taken away from us and there isn’t a clear end in sight. We may share some long sighs and confused stares while we try to put into words our very real struggle. But, inevitably, by the end of our talk, we always naturally come around to discussing how much worse it could be, how we really are counting our blessings – and we are able to authentically muster up some gratitude for what is. We remind ourselves, perhaps purely as a coping mechanism, of how many people are struggling much (much) worse and how in the big picture we are fine, we are safe, and we are probably going to be ok. Sometimes, of course, we all need in-the-moment tools to keep afloat until we can gain that bigger perspective. I get into some of those practical tips later.
Working upwards through the muck and eventually gaining a higher elevation with a big-picture perspective can seriously help to change our view. It may sound a little cliché, but it’s true: intentionally focusing on gratitude (through the lens of “the big picture”), along with a big ol’ dose of being-easy-on-ourselves (for not always being in a perpetual state of gratitude!), is a life raft to get us through this time. And, interestingly, there’s science to support this.
The developing field of positive psychology, pioneered by psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, recommends focusing intently on what is right and positive in our lives and then connecting deeply with our gratitude for these things. Through the simple act of focusing on positive aspects of our life and our gratitude for these things, we can actually rewire the way our brain perceives various situations. That’s right: we can literally rework our brain pathways with daily training and perspective change. It’s not just putting on a pair of rose-colored glasses; it is hardwiring our sight.
The research on positive psychology excites me, because it’s easy to apply and quickly effective. A good starting place is an exercise called “Three Blessings,” which Seligman says is quite dramatic for many people. He has found that if folks complete this exercise daily for even one week, depression can start to lift and people will experience more joy. Over time, people begin to see the world differently, without effort. The simple exercise goes like this: nightly, write down three things that went right or were positive in your day, and then write down why it happened. So if your Good Thing #1 was “I got all of my work completed today at my job,” the reason may be “because I stayed really focused.” Or if your wife brought you home a cookie you may say “because she knows I love cookies.” However big or small your morsel of positivity is, find a meaning for it and write it down. I even have patients who have had great results with a simplified exercise of just writing down a few things they are grateful for each night in their gratitude journals. Personally, when I feel I am sliding into despair or grumpiness – which has happened more often over this last year – I force myself to spend one full minute focusing on things to be grateful for. This invariably includes the big things, like my healthy children and having all my basic needs met, as well as the simple wonders around me (colors of the fall leaves, sweet birds chirping, etc.). I start the exercise begrudgingly, but literally within one minute, I feel some of the weight lifting. Perspective is a great healer, and this shift can be an invaluable tool right now.
So in this season of resolutions and change, I recommend that we give ourselves the opportunity to take stock of all the things in our life that are right, positive, and deserve our heartfelt gratitude. It may seem hard at first, but blessings truly do abound (if you are reading this post, on a phone or computer, in safety… there are three right there). Read Dr. Seligman’s book Flourish and check out his great website authentichappiness.com for more inspiration.
And if gratitude isn’t enough, here are some other tips to keep our spirits afloat when times are hard:
Get outside during daylight and take a walk!
Putting one foot in front of the other – especially while breathing fresh air and exposing your retinas to some natural light, even if it isn’t sunny – increases serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, the three neurotransmitters that uplift the mood while keeping you calm and motivated. In addition, getting your heartrate up and circulating fresh blood to your organs and brain results in a better attention span, increased memory, and sharper mental acuity to keep you working longer and better. So consider a walk outside instead of a sugary snack for that afternoon slump! There’s a book all about this called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey, MD.
Get some light on your face!
Try a light box, “Happy Lamp,” or blue light
Light therapy, or phytotherapy, is designed to mimic exposure to natural outdoor light and can induce changes in the chemicals which are linked to mood. You simply sit next to a light box, ideally for the first hour of the day, and allow the light to penetrate your eyes indirectly. Light therapy balances brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders, and other conditions. Both broad-wavelength white light (without UV) and narrow-band blue light have been clinically shown to reduce symptoms of seasonal depression. The Carex Day-Light Classic and SAD Solutions Blue Light are good options.
Get Your Vitamin D!
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is produced by the body when we expose our skin to sunlight. It’s also called the sunshine vitamin because it helps bring a sunny disposition to a blue mood. It is now well accepted in the scientific community that low levels of Vitamin D can increase your risk of SAD or wintertime blues as well as contribute to poor COVID infection outcomes. Studies have also linked a vitamin D deficiency to an increased risk of asthma, cancer, heart disease, migraines, and more. Vitamin D is easy to test for and easy to take. A daily dose between 1000-5000 IU is often safe for most people. Ask your doctor. (For more information about this wonderful vitamin, and how it works, see my extensive Vitamin D blog post!)
Nibble on some chocolate!
Cacao, which is a superfood, is the bean that we make chocolate from. But all chocolate is not equal: the closer to pure cacao (like cacao nibs or powder as opposed to processed milk chocolate), the more benefit we receive. Chocolate energizes our day, seems to soothe our soul, and likely has gifts for us that are yet undiscovered. It’s pretty wild to see how chocolate has reached revelatory status, with a zillion different varieties on the market and copious scientific research exploring its healing power. While the ancient people knew that cacao had unique properties, modern research is bringing its mystery into the light. Cacao is a superfood containing a variety of unique phytonutrients, including a robust amount of flavonoids, as well as sulfur, magnesium, copper, and phenylethylamine (nature’s anti-depressant). So next time you need some endorphins and a serotonin surge, reach for some cacao nibs! (Cacao and all chocolate products are stimulating due to the theobromine, so treat them with respect, like you would caffeine).
Sip a mood-boosting tea!
My favorite mood-boosting tea features two blues-busters: lemon balm and St. John’s wort. It also supports a happy belly, which is crucial for that gut-brain connection. Lemon balm is bright and cheery, and reduces anxiety nicely. St. John’s wort naturally increases serotonin, the happy hormone. Fennel seeds calm a nervous belly and lend a nice sweet taste. You can also add 1 drop (at most) of an essential oil at the very end, shortly before drinking the tea, for extra support in lifting your mood (see ingredients list). I suggest you make a quart of tea at a time and sip it throughout the day for maximum mood support.
Makes 5 cups
5 cups water
¼ cup fresh or 2 tablespoons dried lemon balm leaves
¼ cup fresh or 2 tablespoons dried St. John’s wort flowers
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 drop essential oil (optional), such as:
Lemon or orange oil—lifts energy and brightens mood
Lavender—calms the brain and belly
Peppermint—uplifts the spirit and settles the belly
Bring the water almost to a boil and remove from the heat (or use instant hot water if you have it). Add the herbs and seeds and let steep for at least 5 minutes or up to 12 hours. Strain and enjoy. If using the essential oil, add right before drinking.
With gratitude for all of my wonderful patients and the honor of serving our community,
Dr. Erika Siegel