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Monday, September 13, 2010

How to beat the fall and winter blues in the Netherlands

Of all the reasons one might find to go to the Netherlands to visit or to live, beautiful weather certainly isn't one of them. In the deep winter months, the sun can come up as late as 9am and go down as early as 4:30pm. Add to that the rainy, overcast weather that dominates the autumn, winter and early spring seasons and it's enough to get you down and make you feel depressed.

Everyone feels it. How can you not? Even the Dutch feel it and you'd think they'd be used to it. This time of year can be especially difficult for expats who may already be experiencing feelings of disconnection and loneliness. I suppose we could all be thankful that we don't live in Antarctica or even Iceland. But those kinds of "happy thoughts" don't do much when you're experiencing sun-separation anxiety.

Here are some things you can do to help make this period of darkness and gloom just that much more bearable.

13 ways to beat the blues
  1. Treat yourself. Spend a few minutes every day doing something for you: a facemask, manicure or pedicure, massage, go shopping. Reader Brenda B. opts for bright summer colors to adorn her nails for an added boost. It doesn't matter what you do, just take some time to pamper yourself and allow yourself to feel "worth it." Because you are!
  2. Spend time with people. Spending time alone when you're already feeling down is the worst thing you can do for yourself. Monique, author of the blog Ms. Wooden Shoes makes it a point to meet up with her girlfriends regularly for drinks. Make time for people you care about who care about you. Ask your Dutch language classmates out for a cup of coffee, invite some of the other mums in your playgroup over, take co-workers out for a happy hour at the end of the work day, make a date night each week with your significant other. You can join a club full of like-minded people and exciting regular events. Just get out there, have fun and talk. With that in mind, also check in regularly with friends and family back in your country of origin. You'll stay in the loop and still feel connected. They know and love you and sometimes it's so conforting to hear a friendly and familiar voice.
  3. Brighten things up. Vibrant colors can do wonders to push out the gloom. Wear bright colored clothing, dress the bed in summer colors, give your drab furniture a colorful make-over during those long winter months. This time of year there's not much light, so be sure to take advantage of what light there is by keeping the curtains open and heading outside the second that the sun pokes it's head out. Facebook community member Susan McK. drops everything if she can to go out and soak up whatever rays she can find the moment the sun dares to show itself. If there is no natural light to chase away the blues, use artificial ones. Don't keep yourself in the dark!
  4. Learn something new. Have you ever wanted to learn another language? During your college days did Basket Weaving 101 actually sound interesting to you? Ever thought about taking up some sort of craft? Well now's your chance. There are tons of workshops and classes available in the Netherlands. In English too! Some of the workshops I've seen recently are jewelry making, writing, chocolate making, cooking, voice, acting, and knitting. Gyms offer all kinds of classes or you can enroll at a dance studio. Check out the Open University, Webster University, Vrije Universiteit or your local Volksuniversiteit or ROC to see what classes they are offering in English.
  5. Volunteer. There is nothing more rewarding or uplifting than donating your time to help others in need. A great place to start if you're interested in volunteering is the expat group ACCESS. Likewise, see if your child's school would be willing to have you come in and help with making copies, grading papers, preparing activities, providing snacks, or whatever else they might like some help with. Ask around and see what organizations are looking for volunteers and what you might be able to do to help.
  6. Get moving. Exercise is a great way to release endorphins (those euphoria inducing, pain reducing neurotransmitters released in the brain)! It can be as involved as a spinning class or as light as gardening. Fitness DVDs are also a great resource and some television channels have a workout segment during their daily programming. Or go online and find workout videos and podcasts. The important thing is to get moving!
  7. Be productive. More often than not, feeling productive is feeling good. Make a list of things to do during the week. Include daily chores, appointments, meetings, events, exercise, your pamper time, classes, groceries, cooking, packing the kids' lunch, whatever it is you want to accomplish. As you complete each activity, cross it off your list. Seeing all those crosses gives you visual proof of all that you've done. Even better - write things down as you do them. The more you accomplish, the longer your list will be. Read through the list before you go to bed and feel proud of how productive you were today.
  8. Write in a journal. Take some time every day to simply write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal. If you're feeling great, write about it. If you're feeling down, write about that too. Write down your wishes, concerns, dreams, thoughts, accomplishments, questions. Once you've poured everything out into your journal, read back through what you've just written. Sometimes this self reflection is all you need to be able to get out of a funk.
  9. Take care of yourself. Eat right. Make sure you get in all the essential vitamins and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Drink lots of water. And, of course, make sure you get enough sleep. Seven to eight hours is the recommended time you should be sleeping each night. If your body feels great, your mind and spirit will follow suit.
  10. Relax. Take some time each day to just relax. Fill the tub up with soapy water and lie in the warm bubbles for a spell. If you're feeling really generous, bring a glass of champagne or wine or a cup of tea along. Watch a movie. Put in your favorite CD. Find some time to sit down with a book or a word puzzle. Wrap up nice and warm and gaze out the window with a mug of warm chocolate in hand and watch the cold, wet passersby.
  11. Laugh. Laughter increases your level of serotonin (the neurotransmitter that sends messages from one part of the brain to another). The first thing expat coach Nicola McCall does is pop in a comedy movie or watch a funny TV show. Listen to or tell a joke. Read Invading Holland or something else that makes you giggle. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.
  12. Have a piece of chocolate. Seriously. Particularly dark chocolate. The cocoa in chocolate has seratonin increasing powers. Plus it just tastes good!
  13. Pet something fuzzy. Animals - especially furry ones - are often used at hospitals, psychiatric wards, and hospices as a form of therapy. The act of petting in itself is extremely therapeutic. Pets also offer companionship and loyalty. Put aside some time to spend with your pet or someone else's. It's almost as though they know when you're feeling down and exactly what to do to lift you back up.
If you've tried all of these tips and are still feeling depressed for three or more consecutive weeks, call your doctor. You may be experiencing issues with Seasonal Affective Disorder or Depression. Your doctor may be able to recommend things to you like psychiatry, anti-depressants, light therapy, or a supplement like vitamin D or Saint John's Wart. Do not take any of these steps on your own without consulting your doctor first.

How about you? What do you do to chase away the blues this time of year?

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Amanda said...

Good suggestions. I never experienced the winter blues until we moved to the Netherlands and I had to deal with the darkness on top of the regular expat isolation. I always count on my cats to help me get through the days and I try to arrange regular meet-ups with people too, just to gt out of the house.

Jules: said...

Pets are good, but only if they like being cuddled. We have 3 cats--one is broken and can't be picked up, one hates being cuddled, and one only likes men :-)

Definitely ask your doctor about taking St. John's Wort, if that's what you're thinking about. The stuff they sell in the herb stores here is pretty potent stuff and to me, acts exactly like any other prescription antidepressant (2 weeks to kick in, a "sick-ish" feeling while it does, headaches and dizziness if you stop too quickly, etc).

Aledys Ver said...

Good suggestions! I am one of those that are normally hit hard by the winter blues. No matter what I do or if I undertand what's going on and why, I still feel it and find it difficult at times to get out of the house. I also have a Brazilian friend who normally chooses the winter months to seek refuge in Brazil because she simply can't take it here.

MissNeriss said...

Thanks for some great suggestions. I'm really dreading the upcoming winter. I really don't manage well at all. I know it will be the end of me living here in Holland, and because this summer was so short and it's raining already I'm feeling the Black Dog skulking just around the corner.

I really like the idea of treating myself! I think I'll schedule a weekly massage or treatment at the Rituals Spa so I have something to look forward to each week!

David T. Macknet said...

In Scotland (just as dark or even darker) we use full-spectrum light-bulbs around the house, particularly during the day - it really helps. :)

Loraine said...

I'm looking into some courses which I can join so thanks for these tips! Haha It would be my first autumn and winter but I have a few routines that I do when I feel down or depressed. I eat a bag of chips with a can of diet coke...I guess, eating things that you like the most that is part of your no-no list. :) I totally agree about the dark chocolates!

LizzeeB said...

Perfect timing for this post. I walked around the whole day yesterday saying "I just don't understand how people can live in this country?". The weather is not ideal now but I think it's the diminishing daylight hours and the thought of months of winter ahead that brings the gloom and doom on. Some good tips that I will follow.

American Cloggie said...

@Amanda, Thanks! Unfortunately I've already had to use more of these than I'd like. C├ęst la vie! Sometimes though all I need is a little bit of #13 with Turner and I feel so much better!

@Jules, Maybe you can find another cat to cuddle and they'll get jealous and get over their predjudices ;) Thanks for the Saint John's Wart pointers! You can really never be too careful!

@Aledys Ver, As am I! I find that I'm much more likely to get out and do something if I make plans with someone else. Then I'm accountable to someone. Doesn't always work, but it helps! I wish I had the vacation time and money to head for Brazil this time of year!

@MissNeriss, You're very welcome :) I hope they help! I think you're right - the key is having something to look forward to. Let me know how the massage appointments go!!

@David T. Macknet, That's an idea! I know some people hit the tanning salons, but I thnk that's so unsafe! I've heard those light therapy boxes work miracles as well. Thanks for the tip :)

@Loraine, My problem is that I tend to eat too much of the things I love lol! But comfort foods really can do wonders.

@Lizzee, I'm just amazed at the resiliance. Outside going about their business no matter what the weather. Luckily, for me the good things about this country far outweigh that bad. Maybe that should be #14: Make a list of all the positive things to look over when you're not feeling so positive!

TO EVERYONE: Good luck this fall and winter and stay happy and healthy!

Bemgba Nyakuma said...

Your post has wonderful suggestions and I will send a link to my friends who have just moved here. If only I had seen/read this during my first winter in the Holland it will have saved me a lot of hassle. My saving grace was my escape to be with family in England. Grtz

Natalie said...

Great post, Tiffany. I can imagine many from warmer climates and used to longer daylight hours in the winter can find it sometimes tough. For me, i'm used to similar weather in the UK - maybe without the horizontal rain though! ;-) Winter is a great time to plan a holiday somewhere warm for a bit of an energyboost. and I do like the sound of #1 ;-) definitely #13 keeps away the blues, #11 too :-)

I am Dutched Pinay said...

hi, thanks for connecting...

great suggestions indeed for the winter blues, i especially liked 1,6,7,8,9 and 10.

"traveling" as well is helpful. get out and entertain ourselves with new places, new cultures, new food (yum!), new people around us... europe isn't that big and other countries are reachable within an hour's flight or 1-4 hours drive/train ride. adopt a hobby too! and re: 6--an option would be to walk... walk in the woods during the weekend, walk in the city, walk in the neighborhood... even just a 30 minute walk can do wonders to our psyche and health as well.

A Touch of Dutch said...

Such a great post! Thank you for sharing these tips! It's going to certainly be very helpful for many out there :-) Have a nice weekend!

American Cloggie said...

@Natalie - Thanks! I know I've been making my way through them the last few weeks! Good tip about the holiday! I've never thought to do that, but I bet it's enough fun in the sun to get you through till spring :)

@I am Dutched Pinay - Thanks so much for dropping by! I've heard with exercise/movement in general something is better than nothing and I think your idea of a walk in the woods or through the city can take care of a handful of tips in this list! And you're right again - we are very lucky that there's so much to see right at our fingertips given the NL's proximity to so many other countries in Europe. Thanks for the tips!

@A Touch of Dutch - Thanks! They've really been a life-saver for me already. I hope they're able to get everyone through till spring! Enjoy the weekend :)

Anonymous said...

We Dutch go to a tanning station, plan a holiday, go out for a walk (being outside helps, even when the sun doesn´t shine) plan our holiday for the summer, remember that the 21st december is the shortest day and from then on it will get better, take vitamines with extra energy for the winter (you can find them in "het Kruidvat" from Davitamon)and soon as the christmas tree is gone, we buy flowers! In february there are lots of tulips available..
We all look forward to spring, you do´t get used to it, because you need the sunlight. There is a wake-up light, made by Philips wich helps you wake up naturally because it´s starts with a soft light and keeps shining brighter! Ideal when you need to get up early!
Kind regards, Mariel

Tiffany said...

Great tips Mariel! Thanks so much for sharing. I know I'll be using some of these in the future!