I’m always the first one to say that winter sucks. I’ve suffered from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, since I was old enough to connect the gross weather with my gross feelings from November through March. A common treatment for SAD is light therapy (it can stimulate serotonin production in the brain). This can be great, but it’s also common for people to self-treat their SAD by visiting a tanning salon, which is not at all great. Curious about alternative ways to deal with SAD, I asked a few experts what they’d suggest for those of us who are tempted to curl up under the covers and cry.
Dr. Norman Rosenthal is the doctor who first coined the term seasonal affective disorder. He tells me it’s a common condition, one that affects over 14 million Americans. To determine if you have SAD, he suggests:
Ask yourself how you typically feel at Thanksgiving and Christmas and, especially after the New Year, in the dark months of January and February. If you are not at your peak at those times, perhaps you have SAD. People with SAD typically need more sleep during the winter months, and have less energy. As you can imagine, work and relationships suffer as you feel like a human bear — wanting to hibernate on your couch or under your covers. The last thing you feel like doing is working or being sociable. Sometimes people with SAD can actually become quite down and depressed, though these symptoms often occur after the physical ones.
So how can we combat these feelings of depression, stress, anxiety, and general blah-ness? Read on to find out how you can get rid of, or at least lessen, your winter blues.
1. Go for a walk in the morning. Dr. Yael Vornado, a medical expert commonly known as Dr. V, suggests:
Soak up the AM rays and go for a morning walk: A one-hour walk outdoors every morning can be a game changer for those suffering from SAD. Becauseit is believed that SAD is related to a lack of daylight, even modest exposure to daylight (regardless if the sun is shining or not) has a positive impact.
2. Exercise! It’s not exactly news that moving your body can help improve your mood (evidence: just about a bazillion studies) but exercise can be especially important in helping you to deal with seasonal affective disorder. Getting outside, which exposes your brain to daylight, can help elevate your mood and regulate your serotonin levels. Plus, exercise reduces stress and anxiety and can also give you heightened levels of that feel-good chemical called endorphins. It can be hard to motivate yourself to do much physical activity if you’re feeling crappy, but try starting with a walk (as mentioned above) or a simple morning yoga sequence. You’ll find that the least little bit helps.
3. Don’t skimp on carbs. Ling Wong, a holistic nutrition and wellness coach, says:
Carbohydrates have long been demonized, but your body needs carbs to produce serotonin—a feel-good brain chemical that elevates mood, suppresses appetite, and has a calming effect. Only complex carbs—high in fiber and packed with whole grains—have a positive effect on mood, whereas simple carbs such as candy, cake, cookies, and other sugary choices, bring you down. Need a quick mood boost? Try an all-carb snack, like a couple cups of air-popped popcorn or half a whole-grain English muffin.
4. Don’t believe everything you think. Huh? Well, Dr. Holly Parker, psychologist on the faculty at Harvard and a licensed psychotherapist at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, told me that carefully monitoring your thoughts can prevent you from going into a downward spiral of negative feelings. She says:
It can get tempting for people to buy into negative beliefs they may have about themselves, others, and their lives. Resist assuming that what you believe is necessarily true. We think things all of the time that aren’t true, and not all thoughts—not even all negative ones—define reality. This is important because the way we think affects the way we feel. So, the next time you find yourself feeling down, stop and see if you can notice and write down some of the negative thoughts you’re having. Then, instead of believing them, try examining them and questioning how much evidence you really have to believe it. What might be another, more accurate way of looking at the same situation? Try noticing how this new perspective makes you feel.
There’s definitely something to be said for thinking positive (even when you’re feeling sad) so this is a good thing to try and practice until the weather gets warm again.
5. Keep a schedule. We know how tempting it is to sleep late on weekends, but setting and keeping a reliable sleep schedule can be really beneficial to both your body and your mood. Oversleeping can increase levels of melatonin in your body, which can contribute to feelings of depression. Plus, exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning can help you feel better all day long.
I know I’m going to incorporate these suggestions into my cold-weather life. Do you have any others that SAD sufferers might find helpful?