I love fall and winter. I love pumpkins, changing colors, crisp air, hiking outdoors and comfort foods. I love snow days, cross country skiing and snowball fights.
Nonetheless, when those first really cold days come around, when the sun rises later, when the damp chill in the air gets to your bones, it never fails that all you can think about is getting home to the couch.
On those days I feel a gripping in my chest, realizing that I have a long winter ahead. Light makes me happy, and the darkness of winter brings me the blues.
I am not alone. It is estimated that 10 million Americans1 experience seasonal affective disorder, or (SAD), which leads to depression during the winter months. While I have always been able to combat SAD, I am like countless others who experience a dip in their mood and energy during the winter months.
SAD is a type of depression that comes on in the late fall or early winter and leaves in the spring or summer. People with SAD experience the typical symptoms of depression, like hopelessness, low energy, sadness, loss of interest in activities, difficulty concentrating and more. If you are like me, and you don’t experience full-blown SAD, the winter months can still give you lower mood and energy.
It took me years of trial and error, getting a medical degree and working with patients to realize that we have tools to learn to work with these normal rhythms of life. Now, even though I still experience a shift in energy and mood during the winter months, I know what to do to survive and even thrive year-round.
9 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues:
- Check your Vitamin D. We maintain healthy levels of vitamin D through regular exposure to the sun. As you can imagine, our levels can fall during the winter. Low vitamin D levels can lead to fatigue and depression. I recommend getting yours checked at least once mid-winter to see whether you need to take some in a supplement form.
- Shine some light on your face! We all know how good the warm sun feels on our face. Bright light exposure affects our brain and our hormones, contributing to improved mood and healthy sleep/wake patterns. Get an energy lamp (one brand is the Verilux HappyLight) and spend 10 to 20 minutes sitting in front of it on most winter mornings. I keep mine in the bathroom to use while I am getting ready for the day.
- Get your sweat on! Exercise releases natural chemicals called endorphins in your body. Endorphins reduce a person’s perception of pain and improve well-being. Exercise outside to get the double benefit of exposure to nature and endorphins. I love running outside, cross-country skiing and simply walking outside bundled up in my winter clothes.
- Eat clean consistently. Good food helps you feel your best by maintaining healthy digestion, reducing inflammation and improving your immune system. Eat your veggies, stay away from highly processed foods and sugar, and drink plenty of water.
- Don’t isolate. Even though the cold, dark winter can make us want to snuggle up on the couch for the night, make a consistent effort to be with others. Connecting with others boosts our mood, fitness, weight and immune system. It also enhances our sense of well-being . The key is the quality of the people you interact with, not the number of people, according to University of Chicago social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo2, who studied the health effects of loneliness and social isolation.
- Check your booze intake. While a hot toddy may seem like a good idea to warm you up, alcohol is a depressant and can make matters worse if you are already suffering from a low mood. Watch your alcohol consumption and stick with the recommended intake amounts (no more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women and two for men3).
- Go with the flow. Embrace the early sundown and allow yourself to go to bed when you feel tired, even if it’s earlier than normal. Allow your body to naturally adjust to its own rhythm.
- Laughter is great medicine. Watch a funny movie while snuggled up in your flannel pajamas. Laughter is good for your body and mind. It creates or enhances positive emotions and fosters connections between people who enjoy each other’s company4, says Robert Provine, a neuroscientist who wrote “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.”
- Make self-care a priority. Use the time to practice serious self-care. Book a spa appointment, give yourself some extra time to read (just for fun!) and prioritize your needs if you feel like you’ve been over-stressed.
SAD can be severe. If you feel severely depressed or have thoughts of hurting yourself, you are not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 at any time of day or night to talk with someone who can help. Closer to home, crisis centers throughout Wisconsin also are staffed 24/7.