I once read that “a day without sunshine is like…night.” And so it is with winter. Our days have shortened and the nights grown longer, with up to 46 million Americans saying hello to winter depression. This is not the typical type of depression, but corresponds to seasonal changes and the amount of sunlight we experience. It is called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. For those who are victims of this unpleasant malady, it predictably occurs within the time of late fall until spring each year. These people suffer a form of emotional hibernation in the winter and are only thawed by spring fever with the return of sunny days.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just not enjoying the winter’s dark and chill. It may be seasonal, but can be compared to chronic, clinical depression. It is characterized by feelings of sadness and hopelessness, lack of energy, irritability, social withdrawal, and even weight gain. Living in the northern latitudes increases the possibility of suffering this curse, as well as being female. In fact, three quarters of SAD sufferers are women, most in their 30s.
The cause of SAD seems to be associated with seasonal changes in the amount of daily sunlight, which throws off the secretion of brain chemicals and hormone levels. It is also thought that the changes in these chemicals influence human circadian rhythms, altering the daily sleep-wake cycle or our biologic clock, prompting sleep disorders in SAD sufferers. Their common conversation is peppered with statements like, “I’m always tired,” or, “I just can’t seem to shake this funk.”
Who wants to be miserable half the year? What can be done about it? Does everyone have to move to a tropical island? Here are some of the more natural solutions:
1. Get More Light – Of course, you can move to the South Pacific each winter in pursuit of that endless summer, which isn’t all that feasible, life disrupting and expensive as it is. You can actually fool the body into thinking it’s summer though with the use of a light box. Bright light therapy requires you to sit in front of florescent or led lights, preferably in the morning, that emit an intensity of approximately 10,000 lumens, which is 10X the brightness of a normal bulb, for 30 minutes or more with your eyes closed.
2. Exercise – Hit the gym and get your heart rate up, sweating to the oldies style. This stimulates the release of those feel good endorphins and keeps that winter weight gain in check. If the weather is tolerable, do some of your workout outside for some extra sunshine.
3. Eat Well – Avoid sweets as much as possible and increase your intake of omega 3 fatty acids. Studies at Harvard Medical School confirm these healthy fats’ positive effects on emotional health, as well as the ability to elevate and stabilize mood.
4. Socialize – Friends and loved ones, especially those that are positive, upbeat, and fun, can help you beat depression of any kind. Ghandi said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Service and a sense of purpose are powerful antidotes to depression.
5. Vacation – Take a mid-winter vacation to warmer, sunnier weather. It may not be the cheapest solution, but it often creates a minor miracle cure. I’m already planning my mid-January mini-summer getaway now. Even just the anticipation brings some sun into my life.
There are even some less scientific actions you can try that I’ve seen help myself and others. Watch a good comedy, laugh a lot, play with children and pets, wear brightly colored clothes, sit next to a roaring fire, sip a big mug of hot chocolate or cinnamon tea, walk around in the local mall, or maybe take up a winter sport like sledding, tubing, skating, or building snowmen.
Winter happens, but letting it wreck half your life is entirely optional.