To say this season is my least favorite is an understatement. It is officially winter and that means ‘cold’ and ‘clouds’.
Only a few years did I start to take note of something odd. In the fall I began to feel a very real mental strain. The days became shorter (as did my energy levels), there was less sunlight, and colder temperatures. As someone who keeps late hours, seeing the sunset at 5:30pm and not rise again until 7:30 am started to seriously affect me.
Even not being a typical early riser, I usually thought most clearly when I first woke up. I was confused as to why I suddenly couldn’t get out bed. I just wanted to sleep and sleep. I was starting to feel guilty about my atypical lack of focus and annoyed that I was no longer capitalizing on my best working hours (whenever they happened to be).
After three years, a light bulb went off in my head. I realized that my tiredness and depressive state came during the gloomy winter months. That was the clue that pointed me toward a fitting solution.
I’m SAD, you’re SAD, we’re all S-A-D
It didn’t take much research to stumble upon Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Like many others, my body was finding it hard to adjust to the change. My circadian rhythm (natural biological clock) was out of balance, which is needed to regulate a person’s sleep cycle. For someone who already has a wonky sleep schedule, this hit me personally doubly hard.
It hadn’t dawned on me that going to college on a tropical island and then moving to California, where a lack of sunlight was never an issue, had shielded me from this awareness about myself. When I relocated back to the East coast, which is notoriously gray during the winters, and clouds hovering above day in and day, it all clicked.
This was more than “winter blues”. As my health and well-being took a downturn each winter, eventually I realized that SAD might be the cause, and I needed to do something about it.
Signs of SAD
- Feelings of depression most of the day, most days — I was feeling off, a lot
- Low energy levels — Yoga? Today? This week? Nah.
- Sleeping problems — This wasn’t new to me
- Difficulty concentrating — What is this ‘focus’ you speak of?
- Lose of interest in activities you previously enjoyed — Oh yeah, I use to like going out to concerts
- Feeling sluggish or agitated — I was restless but lethargic at the same time
And there are more serious ones like having frequent thoughts of death or suicide. This coupled with possibly oversleeping, appetite changes or even weight gain. I thought that SAD was only for the colder months but turns out spring and summer SAD exist as well. Different people are affected differently by each season, positively and negatively.
What causes SAD
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t find one definitive answer as to what the leading cause of experiencing SAD exactly is. As with many things our bodies are always our own alarm system and that’s why it’s even more important to pay attention to how we feel.
Our bodies are acutely aware to changes in the weather, temperatures, and seasons.
Circadian rhythm can trigger these feelings. The reduced levels of sunlight can throw us off.
Melatonin levels, which affect our sleep patterns and moods shift. This regulates our sleep — wake cycle. When we’re jet lagged, this is what we’re feeling a drop in.
Serotonin levels also drop as it’s the brain’s chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood. With less sunlight, these levels dip and can be one of the factors in many people’s depression.
Who gets SAD?
That depends on who you ask as a lot of people, like myself, don’t realize this is what they’re experiencing. Nearly 20 million Americans suffer in some way or another from seasonal affective disorder. Beyond that, there’s 2 to 4 million additionally who experience the more serious effects I mentioned above. Statistically, these clouds usually hang over women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but also quite a few men.
How to stop being SAD
Here are some easy and inexpensive ways to cope with SAD:
- Vitamin D is the magic supplement. When I don’t get enough sunlight, my mood goes down drastically. When the body is exposed to the sun it naturally creates vitamin D. Without it, we feel fatigue and depression/depressive. I get my vitamin D by fortified milk or with a multivitamin.
This means get outside as much as you can. Even if it’s cold, brave the cold, force yourself out with a walk, make a snowman, park far away when going to the grocery store, or something similar. Do whatever it takes regularly to create a habit that will help boost your mood.
I’ve also found the effectiveness of fish oil while reading Dr. Normal Rosenthal’s book, “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.” It was here he describes scientists who studied the Inuit (Eskimo) people, who are exposed to winter conditions most of us can’t even imagine. And yet, they don’t suffer from SAD. One of the answers turned out to be their diet, among other things. They eat a ton of cold-water fish. And these fish are loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids, which may contribute to a lower risk of depression.
- DIY your home in some bright, popping colors on your walls or even on a special project. It’s thought that different colors facilitate a change in our emotional state. All winter long we’re surrounded by 50 shades of grey, why drag that indoors?
I have a brightly colored accent wall in my living room and can honestly say it makes a big difference in my energy. My bathroom is a peaceful seafoam green and it reminds me of the ocean. My favorite bedspread is a serene blush with flecks of gold. Every room in my home makes me feel alive and happy with their colors.
- Keep active by taking a class or starting a project. I find being cooped up in the house worsens my feelings. Last winter I started writing a book, this year I’m taking musical lessons.
Taking a class or something similar can help keep your mind off winter gloom. This is especially true of a class or activity includes other people. I’ve thought about pottery, painting, and even hiking for future winters.
Any project I found myself letting fall by the wayside earlier in the year, is one I take particular time to re-energize during my ‘off season’. It’s also prime time for me to get lost in a good book or two and discover some new musical artist to appreciate. (Thanks Spotify ‘Mood Booster’ playlist) Music affects us all emotionally in different ways. I find something I enjoy that brightens my spirits and distracts me from the weather outside.
- Light box therapy has been a miracle worker for me. There are a lot of different sun lamps out there and it’s important to pick the right one for you. Sun lamps are designed to simulate the look of the sun and trick our bodies into producing vitamin D.
Don’t just go out and purchase a bulb or lights that say “sunlight” or “daylight” on it. Generally, the light box should provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and emit as little UV light as possible.
After a lot of reading and personal attempts, for me, I use the light box each day as follows:
- Within the first hour of waking up in the morning
- For about 20 to 30 minutes
- At a distance of about 15 to 25 inches from the face
- With eyes open, but not looking directly at the light
Now, I no longer dread the arrival of winter because I finally have a solid strategy to deal with SAD. I have a much easier time getting up and starting my day if I stick with a regular routine. I set my alarm for a gentle waking process — at the same time each day — and soak up a daily dose of artificial rays by soaking up a full-spectrum of light via my therapy box.
The reality is that, despite my best efforts, my winter self still struggles to muster the kind of energy and motivation that propels me during the summer months — and I’ve come to accept that by way of better self awareness. I know I can use my own plan or reach out to a therapist or doctor if I’m ever feeling too-blue and there’s no shame in admitting that winter is winning this round.
If nothing else, I know just like the seasons, this too will pass as winter fades and spring starts to bloom, along with my mood.