If you’re like me and live somewhere that gets lots of snow with little sunshine during the winter months, the comedown that follows the joy and celebration of the holidays can hit extra hard. If the “winter funk” you’re going through has been especially tough on your mind and body, you could be one of the 4 to 6 percent of people in the United States that experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression, often referred to as seasonal depression, that is triggered by changes in season, particularly the wintertime with its shorter, colder days and lack of sunshine. Symptoms of SAD include, but are not limited to, drowsiness and lack of energy, loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, oversleeping, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and guilt.
There are multiple theories as to why so many are affected by SAD. One theory is that the changes in season may disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, our internal 24-hour clock that regulates our energy levels during sleeping and waking hours. Seasonal changes may also disrupt hormones like serotonin and melatonin that regulate our mood and energy levels. With the excitement of the holidays – time with family and friends, cheery decor, and delicious food – behind us, feelings of loneliness and boredom, already common in people experiencing SAD or other forms of depression, can be exacerbated. While, unfortunately, we don’t have the power to make the sun come out, there are plenty of easy, but impactful, ways to mitigate the winter blues.
1. Let the light in
SAD Lamps have skyrocketed in popularity, resulting in many affordable options flooding the market – just make sure you’re purchasing one specifically designed for SAD treatment that has the appropriate brightness level and filters out UV light to protect your eyes . I sit in front of my SAD lamp as recommended (for 20-30 minutes within an hour of waking up, 16 to 24 inches away from my face) while I write, and I’ve noticed improved alertness and concentration since I started using it a couple months ago. A consultation with a healthcare provider can help you determine which SAD lamp would best meet your needs - they can also give you guidance on proper usage.Lack of sunshine in the winter can have a huge impact on our mood and energy levels, as well as our sleep quality. When at home, open up those blinds to let as much natural light in as possible. Better yet, sit outside and soak up the sunshine when it's out. If sunshine is limited where you live, consider purchasing a SAD Lamp, a light therapy tool that mimics the brightness of natural sunshine to trigger the same chemical response in the brain that sunshine elicits.
2. Stick to a schedule
I recently adopted a sleep schedule that has me up and moving much earlier than I was used to, and the extra hours of daylight have boosted my confidence, energy, and productivity. And that makes sense: poor sleep quality and schedule are common depression symptoms that, unfortunately, exacerbate mood and energy issues. On my days off, I make sure I’m up before 9:00 am and asleep before midnight. To ease my transition into an earlier schedule, I took magnesium and CBD supplements which helped my mind wind down before bedtime. Making an effort to go to bed and wake up at a similar time each day can alleviate these struggles, especially since you will be exposed to natural light at more consistent times.
If you’re like me, the holiday season includes a surge in social activities slowing down significantly during my post-holiday lifestyle. That’s why I make a special effort to reach out to my besties and closest family members to schedule some quality time to engage with each other, even if that’s just a phone call. Isolation has characterized our lives more than ever since 2020 due to COVID-19, especially for depressed individuals, so time with loved ones can improve your wellbeing more than you may think. It’s often challenging for me to make the effort to reach out and stick to a plan with my friends or family, but I feel the positive mental impact immediately upon sharing a physical or virtual space with them.
4. Move your body
physical activity has been proven time and time again to boost mood and energy, but I know getting out for a run when it’s below freezing or going back to the gym when you may be intimidated or concerned about COVID-19, may not be appealing. Personally, I follow guided strength training and HIIT workout videos on YouTube, but if that isn’t your jam, yoga and pilates are other forms of exercise that you can easily do at home – you don’t need a gym membership, equipment, or even to leave your room to break a sweat and challenge your body. Though finding the enthusiasm to get up and get started is sometimes difficult for me, I’m motivated by the knowledge that I have better energy and self-perception after a good workout.Engaging in
5. Get enough vitamin D
mental health, but since my doctor ran blood tests that showed I was deficient in vitamin D, I started taking supplements as advised by my doctors, which I noticed made getting up and moving each day feel more achievable. There are many vitamin D supplements on the market that may be beneficial, but make sure to get your levels tested and speak with your doctor before introducing supplements.A vitamin D deficiency can be a result of diet or lack of sunshine exposure, the latter of which is especially common in the colder months. Low vitamin D levels are common in those with SAD and cause symptoms that characterize depression. I never considered that a vitamin deficiency was affecting my
6. Get outside
Research has proven the benefits the great outdoors can have on the mind – fresh air increases oxygen to the brain to improve its function and a change in scenery can reduce stress and improve concentration.I’ve already discussed the fact that sunshine plays a huge role in alleviating winter woes, but breathing in the fresh air and taking in the beauty of nature will leave you feeling rejuvenated and may just help put the chaos of life in perspective. Living in Utah, I soak up the natural beauty of the mountains and trees around me to remind myself that whatever I’m going through is, relatively, quite small and temporary.
7. Pick up a hobby
possibilities are endless! Whether you’d like to get creative in the kitchen or with a paintbrush or a pair of knitting needles, there’s never a bad time to try something new to see how you like it. If you try something and don’t enjoy it – awesome! You did something new and learned something! And now you can move on and take a swing at something else. In recent months, I’ve gotten into cooking, cross-stitch, and coloring – all of which allow me to spend quality time with myself and exercise creativity.I cope with time alone indoors by viewing it as an opportunity to try out a new hobby or engage with one I already know I love. Instead of letting boredom get me down, I see it as the perfect opportunity to take a crack at something you’ve been meaning to try. The
8. Find new things to look forward to, no matter how small
I’ve noticed that the symptoms of SAD come on extra strong after the holidays because there’s a feeling of emptiness now that events I spent so long looking forward to are in the past; I feel that it’s safe to assume many others experience the same thing. To combat this, I simply find – or create – the next future thing for me to get excited about, no matter how big or small it may be. It’s been most helpful for me to find small things each day to get excited about – a phone call with my mom, a package in the mail, or a new episode of my favorite podcast. For you, maybe you have concert or plane tickets for a few months down the road, brunch plans for next weekend, or leftovers in the fridge you can't wait to get into later. And no matter what, we can always look forward to springtime!
9. Consider seeking professional help
I have days, more often than I’d like to admit, in which the feelings of being lost, lonely, and desperate are too much for me to tackle with the coping mechanisms I typically rely on. Symptoms of SAD – and life in general – can be overwhelming to navigate on your own. Whether you need advice and coping suggestions or just a safe space to vent about the emotions you’ve been burying, finding a licensed professional to speak with can make a world of difference. These days, there are seemingly countless online resources that can connect you with a therapist who is trained to address your specific emotional needs, and therapy sessions can be had over Zoom or a phone call if leaving the house feels like too much. Finding the right therapist can take trial and error, but it’s so worth it. I feel incredibly lucky to have a professional I can reach out to when the going gets tough, and I always leave my sessions feeling more uplifted than when I arrived.
While getting through the winter, particularly post-holidays, can be a challenge, there’s hope in knowing that the doom and gloom of freezing temperatures, gray skies, and early sunsets is only temporary. I try to keep in mind that better, brighter days are always ahead. In the meantime, I take a bit more time to care for myself – physically, mentally, and spiritually - and explore new ways of finding joy and excitement even in the most mundane of things. You should also be sure to be extra gentle with yourself during this time, and remember that reaching out for support when you need it – whether that be from friends, family, or a licensed professional – is a sign of bravery and strength.