As the days get shorter and autumn moves toward winter, many people notice that they have less energy and their mood is less positive. The changes may be as subtle as not wanting to get out of bed in the morning or a yearning to return to the fun days of summer. For others, it goes beyond being a little down and may include feeling depressed most of the time and losing interest in activities they normally enjoy. These people may be suffering from a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The symptoms—whether mild or severe—are likely to be due to a sensitivity to the lack of sunlight during the shorter winter days, which disrupts the body’s internal clock and affects hormone levels that, in turn, affect mood and the desire to sleep more.
You can fight back against this natural shift by taking some steps to combat your body’s response to the lack of sunlight. Here are a few suggestions that can help:
1. Get as much sunlight as you can
Spend more time outdoors. Bundle up and go out for a walk or participate in winter sports. It can be difficult to get enough natural sunlight during the winter and, unfortunately, regular indoor lighting doesn’t replace natural sunlight. If you can’t get outdoors for some reason, there are lights called light therapy boxes or SAD lights that have special fluorescent tubes that reproduce the sun’s beneficial rays. Doctors often recommend using one of these light boxes for 30 minutes a day to boost mood.
Exercise releases endorphins—the body’s feel-good chemicals—that help lift mood. Exercise also relieves stress, increases energy, and can improve both physical and mental wellbeing. Something as simple as a daily walk—or a visit to the gym or participating in indoor sports if the weather isn’t cooperating—can have a significant impact on mood. Being physically active also helps fight winter weight gain that can have a negative effect on mood.
3. Eat well
Healthy eating benefits both physical and mental health. Be sure to include fruits and vegetables in your daily eating plan. Some foods, such as chocolate, have been shown to relieve anxiety and improve mood temporarily, but that comes with a caution: while candy, cookies, and similar high-carbohydrate foods may make you feel better while you’re eating them, they can make you feel worse later when your blood sugar drops. If you want to treat yourself, try a small piece of dark chocolate and a cup of calming herbal tea.
Finding comfort in simple things such as dressing in warm pajamas and curling up in a blanket on a soft couch and watching a favourite TV show, reading a book, or just talking with friends and family can make you feel content and grateful.
5. Don’t forget to have fun
Wintertime doesn’t mean the fun has to stop. You may not be spending time at the beach or in the pool, but many communities have winter festivals that can be lots of fun. You can participate in outdoor sports or even indoor sports at local community centres. You can also look for a good book to read, check out the new movie releases, play board games, or binge-watch a favourite TV show with like-minded friends.
6. Consider volunteering
Sometimes helping others can make you feel better about yourself. If you can’t get out to a local organization to donate your time, try cleaning out your closets and donating things you no longer need.
When you’re so SAD
If your winter blues start to affect all aspects of your life, you may be suffering from SAD. This is more than just a passing low mood; it is a medical condition and should be treated. The first step is to recognize the symptoms of SAD.
Common symptoms are:
• Difficulty sleeping
• Difficulty taking initiative
• Feeling less social than usual and isolating yourself from family and friends
• Depressed mood most of the day
• Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
• Struggling to stay focused
• Constant fatigue and lethargy
Serious cases may cause feelings of hopelessness about the future and sometimes suicidal thoughts. If you experience these symptoms of depression, even if they are mild, it is important to talk with your primary healthcare provider. If the lifestyle tips listed above don’t help resolve your blues, prescription antidepressants may provide the help you need. The bottom line is: don’t suffer; help yourself and get help from others when you need it.