Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) also known as the “winter blues” (or “winter blahs”) affects millions of people every year. If you’ve ever felt sluggish and depressed during the colder, darker months, you may have experienced this type of short-term depression yourself. Although this is characterized as a disorder, it may just be our minds and bodies encouraging us to take things a bit slower and hibernate a bit more until the warmer days of spring return.
As few of us can afford to take a few months off work so we can crawl under blankets and eat pie, we can take a few steps to alleviate these cold weather blues so they don’t interfere with our daily lives quite as much.
Symptoms of the winter blues can include the following:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- General lethargy and loss of energy
- The feeling of having heavy limbs that are troublesome to move around
- Social withdrawal; feeling like you just want to be left alone
- Fatigue and oversleeping
- Loss of interest in socializing or other activities
- Food cravings, especially for carbohydrates and fatty foods
- Weight gain (likely from a combination of appetite changes and lack of exercise)
- Difficulty concentrating
Does any of this sound familiar? Sure, we can all likely relate to a couple of those issues at some point in the winter, but if you find yourself checking off most of those symptom points, you might wish to take some steps to alleviate them. SAD usually clears up on its own as soon as the weather warms up again and we spend a bit more time in the sunshine, but the following tips and tricks can help to alleviate these symptoms a great deal.
Our energy levels are controlled by the hormones melatonin and serotonin. When we wake to daylight, serotonin kicks in to bring us focus and clarity. Melatonin is produced at night to help us wind down for restful sleep, but over the dark winter months (when we don’t get much exposure to sunlight), our bodies produce more melatonin than usual. This can make us sleepy, lethargic, and depressed, which can be difficult for those of us tending to small children or having to put together spectacular presentations at work.
If you get yourself a small, medically-approved light box and plop it on your desk, you’ll receive similar effects to basking in summer sunshine while you work. That direct light beaming into your retinas can lift your spirits immensely and help to boost your energy levels. Aim for somewhere between 20 minutes and a couple of hours, depending on how miserable you feel. On days when you’re not working, just perch the light box on the table while you eat, read, or do homework.
Working out won’t just help you fight off winter weight gain‒it’ll lift your mood as well. Those natural endorphins that are released during a good workout will keep you smiling for a while, and the restful sleep you’ll get after pushing yourself a little can help too. If you manage to exercise outside, whether that’s cross-country skiing or even just taking a lot of walks outdoors, you’ll also get some great exposure to sunshine and fresh air.
Cut Back on Caffeine, Sugar, and Alcohol
Although a hot cup of coffee, chocolatey brownie, or glass of wine will make us smile for a little while, the inevitable crash will make us feel even worse later. Cut back on coffee and black tea, and stay hydrated with fresh fruit and vegetable juices and water instead. If you’re craving sugar, try chewing on some dried figs, or make yourself some power balls with dates, honey (or agave), and chopped nuts.
Vitamins and Supplements
Some people find that supplements such as Vitamin D and Vitamin C help them to battle the winter blues, while others turn to St. John’s Wort tincture to raise their spirits. Consult your healthcare provided before taking any supplements, just in case there are contraindications with medications you’re already on, or side-effects that may interfere with any medical issues you may have.
If you find that you’re feeling really depressed, are turning to alcohol and/or drugs to lift your spirits, or if you’ve had any thoughts about suicide, please contact your doctor immediately. While the aforementioned supplements and such can work wonders to help mild SAD, more intense symptoms may require stronger measures.