Shorter days. Less sunlight. Cooler temperatures leading to more time indoors.
As if it's not annoying enough to be shuttered up indoors or constantly bundled up to go ourtoods, lots of us struggle with the winter blues.
Technically, only about 6 percent of the population of the United States is diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but I imagine a lot more suffer silently without ever getting a clinical diagnosis. SAD is a form of depression that mostly happen during winter, but can occur at other times of the year. The culprit is likely our circadian rhythm, which gets disrupted when the days get shorter and the nights get longer, beginning around the end of daylight saving time.
Winter days are short and nights are long. Even during the daytime most often there is reduced sunlight. And experts say that this reduced exposure to sunlight may cause the brain to produce higher amounts of the hormone melatonin, which is responsible for causing lethargy and depression and produce lesser quantity of a neurotransmitter – serotonin which is also known as a mood enhancer. Thus, less serotonin means more feelings of depression, along with symptoms of fatigue and weight gain.
“During the winter time, people notice that they’re lethargic, they’re tired and they lose some interest in things...and that can be mild and subtle, or it can be more severe.” Dr. Ravi Shah, assistant professor of psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center
Here are some of the ways people with SAD describe how they feel:
Lack of interest in usual activities
Feelings of sadness, uselessness, loneliness and despair
Feeling angry, irritable, stressed, or nervous
Unexplained aches and pains
Feeling sluggish or weighed down
Increased craving for carbohydrates or sweets
Increased appetite and weight gain
Hard to get out of bed
Changes in sleeping pattern or feeling more sleepy
Tiredness and lack of energy
Reduced sex drive
Increased desire to use drugs or alcohol for comfort
What can you do to help address these symptoms?
Move! When depression hits, a nap often sounds so much more appealing than exercise, but try not to give into the pull of the pillows. Set yourself up for success and commit to at least 20 minutes daily of rigorous movement. Some people find it helpful to enroll in a regular exercise class so they're committed to showing up. An added bonus of doing this is the social engagements you'll build when you're a regular at that yoga or spin class!
Get some houseplants. Somehow, bringing the outdoors inside can be a terrific mood-lifter, and even if you have a brown thumb, try getting to a local nursery, greenhouse or botanical garden!
Let the sun shine. Make sure you're spending at least 20 minutes a day in the sun. If getting outside isn't an option, find a window in your home or office that gets good sun and plant your butt in front of it for at least 20 minutes a day. If you can manage to do this in the mornings, shortly after you wake up, even better! If this doesn't work, there are lots of people who swear by artificial, UV-free light-boxes specifically designed for this!
Channel your inner hippie. Alternative and natural remedies like essential oils and herbal "adaptogens" may lack hard-hitting scientific proof, but lots of people swear by their mood-boosting properties. Just make sure you're using clean products from reputable sources.
Get on the gratitude train. There is increasing evidence that a regular practice of gratitude can literally re-wire your brain. I encourage my clients to keep a gratitude journal next to their bed and journal 5 things for which they're grateful every morning before getting out of bed and 5 more before they fall asleep. Try finding gratitude in the small things: a cozy blanket, the way the light casts shadows on your wall, or even that you're one day closer to Spring.
Food is medicine. Seasonal blues will tell you that you need allllll the carbs, but don't fall for this lie; the quick blood sugar spike will certainly boost your mood for a hot minute (and will taste yummy as well) but the crash is soon to follow. If you're prone to SAD, set yourself up for success with meal planning and make sure you're balancing your carbs with lots of fresh produce and protein as well. Also, make sure you're eating smaller, more regular meals and snacks every 2.5-3 hours so you're keeping your body's fuel tank from running on fumes.
Rewire your energy fields. A regular practice of mindfulness or meditation can do wonders to help boost your moods. I suggest using an app like Calm or even searching for guided meditation videos on YouTube when you're first getting started. You could also look into things like Reiki or regular massage to shift your vibe.
Minimize interior chaos. Take stock of your indoor surroundings: Winter means more time indoors, and a cluttered environment can trigger anxious or bummed out moods. Use this as an opportunity to Marie Kondo the shit out of your space, and make sure you're also not cluttering up your "space" with artificial and toxic fragrances. While scented candles can sure create ambiance, the chemicals that create those yummy fragrances are known toxins, hormone disruptors and carcinogens; try diffusing a drop or two of pure essential oils instead!
Hobby it up. If you know you have a tendency to slide into seasonal depression, set yourself up for success and plan to start a new hobby. Every year I used to plot what I called my "Big Summer Project" where i'd tackle a new hobby (teaching myself to embroider, learning to play an instrument, learning calligraphy, etc...) - this works wonders in the Winter as well! When fall is sliding into winter, pick a new project or hobby on which you can focus and pour into during the dreary winter months... it'll give you something to look forward to and get excited about every day. If you're already deep into winter, it's still not too late to start!
Connect. If you know the winter months tend to drag on heavily for you, create a regular calendar of social encounters with friends and family. One of my good friends plans a bi-weekly "dinner club" where 4-6 friends gather at one of their homes on a rotating basis and either cook something together or enjoy a pot-luck. Another friend has standing "family fun days" 1-2 times a month where they all gather and do something fun together: watch a movie on the big screen, go bowling, take a cooking class, or have a game night.
Cork the bottle. Alcohol may feel like the answer, but it's just not. Moderation in alcohol and drug use (yes, including marijuana) will be your friend during this season... be aware if you find yourself slipping into a higher pattern of use to try and numb the sadness and lethargy.
Get off your devices. Too much screen time is not only a time suck, but can set us up for increased anxiety and depression as well. Limit screen time, especially when you're just waking and going to bed. Put down the phone and pick up a book or a puzzle instead!
Add a pro to your team. Sometimes having professional support can make a huge difference in how you navigate blues any time of year. Professional therapists like me can help you build your toolbox so you're more resilient and less impacted by the symptoms of SAD. They can also help you get connected to a qualified medical provider if your symptoms might be supported by an antidepressant.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, go to an emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site (nami.org) for additional resources.