As the seasons change and the nights draw in, we’re greeted with the end of another year. While many look forward to the festivities of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, others start to struggle with the change of seasons, becoming more isolated in the colder, darker months.
Some people call it the ‘winter blues’, but for others, the change of seasons can affect dramatic change in the body and mind.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly referred to as SAD, is a type of depression that appearsin a seasonal pattern. Symptoms of SAD can be more severe during the winter months, which is why many people call it ‘winter depression’ although others do feel symptoms in summer months, too.
The causes of SAD still aren’t fully understood, but its theorized that lack of sunlight exposure during the long, dark winter months may affect the hypothalamus - a part of our brain - from functioning properly. This could affect the production of the hormone melatonin (related to wakefulness) and serotonin, a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep.
It could also affect the body's internal clock (circadian rhythm) as our bodies rely on sunlight to help us time certain functions, such as waking up. A lack of sunlight could disrupt our body’s natural rhythm causing us to feel lethargic and low.
It can be hard to tell if what we feel on a daily basis is ‘normal’ (and what does ‘normal’ mean, anyway?) So some symptoms to look out for include:
Loss of interest in daily activities, low mood and self esteem, feeling irritated or lethargic, finding extreme difficulty in getting up in the morning, food cravings and weight gain.
So to help you prepare for the dark nights and the winter ahead, here are some tips to help stave off those winter blues before the cold sets in.
There are many light therapy treatments available these days, devices and technology that can lighten your mood by helping to regulate melatonin and other affected hormones. Whether you’re visiting a professional establishment or simply buying a light box for your home, it is always advisable to consult with a medical professional before beginning any treatment. There are a number of affordable light boxes, dawn simulators or blue light devices available online.
One surefire way to get the heart pumping and the mood lifted is to get active. Exercise transforms low mood and lethargy by flooding the brain with BDNF and endorphins. These chemicals make us feel great, and actually have a very addictive trait similar to morphine or nicotine. Getting outside for a run, brisk walk or even just a gentle stroll will make you feel better. Staying active is a great way to alleviate symptoms of SAD and other mood related symptoms.
Take a Window Seat
Sit next to a window whenever you are indoors, whether that means moving your desk next to the window at work or choosing a window seat when you go for coffee after lunchtime. Being next to the window will help you get some sunlight exposure to help the body produce Vitamin D, giving you a boost and benefitting your bones, blood cells and immune system.
Eating a healthy balanced diet is essential to helping maintain a healthy mind (and body). Why? In order for our brains to function at top speed, we need to fuel up properly. There are certain nutrients that have a huge impact on our cognitive function, even helping to combat depression and anxiety. Great mood-boosting nutrients include calcium, iron, magnesium, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc. Eat up!
Talk About It
Acknowledging your symptoms and letting yourself ‘feel’ whats going on in your body is an important part of your overall wellbeing. Talking to someone out loud can help you work through your symptoms and care for yourself at the core. Sharing your thoughts with a trained professional can be helpful, and experts can help you develop and implement coping strategies for your healing process. Slowly, step by step.
Perhaps talking to a professional seems a little daunting, or you’re not quite ‘there’ yet. Get outside and get into your supportive social circles to have fun. You don’t need to regale your best friends with all the grizzly details, simply boosting your social connections will increase your mood and increase your levels of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, often referred to as ‘happiness hormones’. Avoid toxic people at all costs!
Build a Fort
Sometimes the last thing we want to do is be next to other people, and that’s completely fine. Self preservation and self care are not selfish. Why not try building yourself a little fort in your bedroom - aromatherapy candle, favorite movies, throw away that phone, stock up on some non-greasy snacks and take a lot of naps. Keeping a relaxed atmosphere and a clear head can help you tune in and chill out.
While there are many healthy things we can do to help alleviate feelings of low mood, lethargy or hopelessness, sometimes we just don’t have the energy or the desire to try. That’s ok.
Feeling down now and again is completely ‘normal’, however if you suffer prolonged symptoms and find it hard to cope, you may be experiencing more than just the winter blues.
Just make sure that you have some tools in your toolbox for when you feel ready to take action and reach out to someone who can be there for you, because you’re never alone.
If you feel you or someone you know are showing symptoms of SAD or are suffering from any other kind of depression, please contact your GP as soon as possible, as these wellbeing tips are not a replacement for professional medical treatment.
Stay warm and well this winter.
A small list of local mental health and wellness resources can be found here.