Since at least high school winter for me has arrived with an accompanying set of pretty unpleasant symptoms. I tend to have less energy, have more trouble focusing, am more sensitive and irritable, have less interest in social activities (I’m normally pretty social), crave more carb heavy foods, and just feel downright depressed at times.
For the longest time I thought it was just me and that these experiences were something I had to deal with and get through until spring and summer came. It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered I was actually dealing with seasonal affective disorder.
According to the Mayo Clinic seasonal affective disorder (SAD) “is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year……symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.” It is believed to be caused mostly by reduced exposure to sunlight.
FamilyDoctor.org notes that “between 4% and 6% of people in the United States suffer from SAD. Another 10% to 20% may experience a mild form of winter-onset SAD. SAD is more common in women than in men and winter-onset SAD is more common in northern regions, where the winter season is typically longer and harsher.” I think that risk is exacerbated in cloudy climates like the Pacific NW.
Even if you don’t experience full-blown seasonal affective disorder, if you live in the upper half of the continental US, I’d guess you deal with some winter blues. Here are some tools that have been really helpful to me in fighting those blues. I think they can be useful to anyone wanting a little more pep in their step during the long winter months:
Exercise – Exercise is important all year long for many of reasons. Besides the obvious physical benefits, it has been proved to reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, boost self-esteem, improve sleep and boost energy levels. I think it’s even more important in winter when many of us are more susceptible to feeling down and experiencing low energy.
Get Outside – In many parts of the country going outside during winter isn’t very enticing. It can be cold, wet and plain uncomfortable. But I’ve discovered that even a little time outside, even if it is cloudy, makes me feel better. During warmer, sunnier months it is easier and more natural to spend time outdoors so we’re automatically getting the benefits of being in the fresh air and natural light. In winter we have to be more intentional to get out but it really only takes bundling up a little to make it much more comfortable. Even better, we can exercise outside and get double the benefits.
Be Social – Sometimes during the dark of winter for me it’s tempting just to hang out at home and hunker down. That’s good for a while but prolonged isolation is a recipe for feeling down, even for introverts. Once again during lighter months it is more enticing and easier to get out, but it is just as important during the winter. Research shows that social connections and community are critical to our well-being so we can’t give up on that during the winter even if it takes a little more work.
Take Vitamin D Supplements – Since most of us get the majority of our vitamin D from the sun it is natural to develop a vitamin D deficiency during the darker days of winter. According to Psychology Today, “several studies have suggested that the symptoms of SAD may be due to changing levels of vitamin D3 , which may affect serotonin levels in the brain.” Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is critical to mood regulation and low levels of it are linked to depression. Taking a supplement to help boost levels of vitamin D can offset these negative effects and improve our mood. People who work indoors can show low vitamin D levels even during summer so in reality, many of us would probably benefit from extra vitamin D all year long.
Light box – In researching treatments for SAD, I learned that one of the most common is using a light box. I asked my doctor about getting one and he suggested a medical grade model which is really bright. I sit in front of it for about 15-20 min. each day while eating breakfast and it has made a big difference. People with mild winter blues probably don’t need such a powerful light but there are smaller, consumer grade models available that would help still help.
This probably goes without saying, but if you’re experiencing many of the symptoms that I’ve described, especially for a prolonged period of time, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. They can help properly diagnose you and recommend treatments that will be most effective to your situation.
If you experience any level of winter blues I hope you’ll give at least a couple of these tips a try. Putting them to use has greatly improved my winters and I’m confident it will do the same for you. Here’s to a happier rest of winter for all of us!