It seeps into your soul, unbidden. You barely notice it’s happening. The darkness is all around you… and it’s only 3 pm!
Ever heard of the winter blues? You have probably felt them. Something like an overwhelming desire to make like a bear and hibernate until sunshine and humane temperatures grace the northern hemisphere again. As a culture, we wave off the symptoms as innocent- holiday hangover, delicious holiday food weight gain, too cold to exercise- but SAD and Winter Depression are real things that affect many of us northern folk (and some of our southern friends) annually.
SAD and Winter Depression: Say What?
An aptly named acronym, SAD is short for Seasonal Affective Disorder. That sinking feeling accompanied by drowsiness, weight gain, and cravings for junk food are all hallmarks of this wintertime problem. Steel yourself now, because this disorder tends to peak in January and February- those cold, slushy months painted grey by heavy skies, no longer lit up by cheerful Christmas lights. Women are found to be 4 times more likely than men to feel the effects, while up to 6% of the population will experience SAD. Winter Depression is exactly what it sounds like, with roughly 5% of the population engaging in its misery. In addition to the symptoms of SAD, sufferers of this malady may find themselves fighting higher levels of anxiety, eating disorders, depression, substance abuse and even suicidal ideation. As such, it is something to be taken very seriously.
When the sun goes away, time itself seems to slow down. And in some ways, it does. Your circadian rhythm- the natural ebbs and flows of your mental activity and sleep cycle- marches in time with the sun. In these dark winter months, your rhythm changes, affecting melotonin levels, which in turn affects one’s sleep patterns and moods. All of these little breaks in routine can cause serotonin levels to tank, bringing joy and motivation at work down as well. There is some proof that some people are more genetically predisposed to suffer SAD, while others will feel it most in the post-holiday letdown.
So …What Can You Do About It?
Luckily, there are more and more ways to stay chipper and productive in the seasonal slog!
- Light Therapy: A popular part of the solution is to purchase a special SAD light for use at your desk or home. Broad spectrum bulbs are more similar to natural sunlight and can trick your mind into feeling a bit sunnier. Dawn simulators are also available and imitate a natural sunrise with your morning alarm when the real sky is still pitch black.
- Get Moving: Exercise. Boost those dopamine receptors and remind your body that functioning beats couch hibernation.
- Get Outside: Walk the dog. Bundle up and go for a pre-work stroll. Catch a pickup game of pond hockey. Shovel snow. Breathe in the clean air and marvel at the pick-me-up that follows.
- Eat Well: We live in an era where nearly all vitamin and mineral rich foods are available year round. Take advantage of this. Avoid the takeout menu and keep it lean- keep your system working.
- Plan Ahead: Even once the holidays have passed, try to plan out some events to look forward to. Concerts, clubs, local sports team games, etc., even a vacation!
- Socialize: Time with friends or brainstorms with coworkers can raise serotonin levels. Likewise, having a therapist may be a necessary outlet.
- Be Kind to Others: Express gratitude. It’s easy to hole up in a cave for four months, but it feels great to spread happiness.
- Be Kind to Yourself: You’re not going to be as lights-out productive as you were several months ago- and as such you may need to set your personal expectations a little lower. Give yourself some leeway to decompress and ask for assistance on big projects if needed. If you have a week where you sleep in a bit more and wallow in carbs- forgive yourself. Being comfortable by slowing down, reflecting on what is important to you and focusing on the big picture can be as beneficial as a brisk sunny morning walk.
It’s hard to get through the darkest days of the year alone. Remember to reach out if you need to and keep in mind that Spring and those longer days are not as far away as they seem! While vitamins and exercise may help some people, please be sure to consult with your physician to prioritize your own best plan to beat SAD.