Every winter when the ground starts to freeze and it's dark by mid-afternoon, I glance at the person I've been dating and ask myself: Can I be snowed in with this person? This question arose after being snowed in with a man who posted Facebook pictures of me while I slept (shudder), and has guided all of my winter-mating decisions. I now take time to imagine blizzards where electricity goes out (leaving me Netflix-less), where there's nothing left in the fridge but Sriracha, and where there's only one clean blanket left to keep me and my imaginary beau warm. With that nightmarish version of winter in my head, I've largely decided it's better to ride out the season alone.
My own paranoia aside, many of us experience pretty noticeable psychological changes during the winter months. While you might have heard the term 'winter blues' before, there is a more severe form of winter depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that affects about 10 million people each year. Those who suffer from SAD experience all of the symptoms of winter blues—irritability, fatigue, decreased activity—but with more severity. For instance, sufferers of SAD report sleeping an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than in the summer, whereas those who have winter blues sleep 1.7 hours more (the average person—unaffected by either of these—sleeps 0.7 hours more in the winter). So basically, who we're snowed in with isn't just potentially annoying, it's mental health issue.
The most common treatments for SAD include talk therapy, exercise and light box therapy, but there's evidence that massage therapy reduces symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. There's also the added perk that massages might help you both not want to kill each other or crawl into a corner and mope.
"Human beings are hardwired for healthy touch, so in terms of depression and other emotional challenges, having that contact can help to restore balance," says Clarence Gibbons, a licensed massage therapist at Balance Integrated Bodywork in New York City.
Research supports Gibbons' assertion that consensual touch and massage therapy have psychological benefits. One analysis of 39 massage therapy studies even went as far as to suggest that regular massage therapy can be as effective in treating depression as traditional psychotherapy.
While Gibbons does stress that proper technique will impact results, he acknowledges that regular massages can be pricey as hell, and might keep the average person from seeking out services. For those of us on a budget, tricking bae into rubbing us down might be the next best thing. And even without professional technique, allowing yourself to be touched by an inelegant (but well-intentioned) partner might help build intimacy, increase calm feelings, and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Tips for Twosomes
When I visited Gibbons at his office, I brought my friend and fellow stressed-out New Yorker Danielle to reap the benefits of a massage. Taking us through some acupressure techniques, Gibbons placed colored stickers on the point between her eyebrows (an acupuncture point known as Du 24), the center of her breast bone (known as Ren 17), and the center of each palm (known as Pericardium 8) to help identify the proper places to apply pressure.
Gibbons stood behind Danielle and spent a few moments applying pressure to the various points of her body. He rubbed his hands together until they were warm, and instructed her to breathe deeply. Starting at the soft spot at the top of Danielle's head (known as Du 20) he applied pressure while stressing the importance of communicating with your partner to ensure comfort. Though this wasn't the sensual rub down I envisioned, Gibbons' acupressure tips seemed an easy and effective way to bring comfort and endorphins to a friend or lover who might be struggling through the winter blues.
No Partner? No Problem.
"Some people don't like to be touched, so going back to self-care…they can do the work [of self-massage techniques] on themselves," Gibbons says.
To illustrate this point, Gibbons led Danielle through a quick self-massage. Sitting upright, Danielle applied pressure to the same points Gibbons touched during the partner demonstration. He prompted Danielle to use one index finger to press the point at the top of her head, while using her other index finger to touch the point at the center of her forehead. Gibbons again emphasized paying close attention to her breathing as a way to calm the body. He also instructed Danielle to notice any tenderness as she moved through the various regions of her body.
"The routine can be as long or as short as you need, and with practice you'll know how much time is necessary," he says.
Working with the lower body, Gibbons had Danielle make two fists, and prompted her to gently knead the small of her back. After some time spent in silence, Gibbons asked her how she felt.
"Relaxed," Danielle declared. I'd become more relaxed just by watching her.
Ultimately, whether or not you have a partner (or a lingering Tinder date), finding effective methods to alleviate mental distress is always a worthy endeavor. Plus, while this recent study questions whether seasonal affective disorder is an illness separate from depression, the anecdotal evidence remains: The winter months bring out the worst in some of us, so it becomes imperative to figure out ways to live happily with ourselves and the people with whom we choose to face the winter. As for me, if I ever decide it's worth it to brave the season with another human, I'll make sure we're both willing to give each other regular rubdowns.