How to Handle the Dark Days of Late Autumn and Winter:
Lifestyle remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
by Kirsten Falcone, RN
Hilbert College Wellness Center
According to experts, even though we gained an hour of sleep, the time change may have had an overall negative effect on many people’s moods. In fact, as the daylight grows shorter, you may be feeling as if the walls are closing in on you. This is not uncommon. Terms frequently used for this feeling are “cabin fever” and “winter blues,” though health professionals have actually recognized it as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Typical symptoms of SAD include feeling depressed, hopeless, worthless, helpless, irritable, restless, disinterested in activities you formerly enjoyed, difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, disturbed sleep patterns, weight gain or loss, and sometimes thoughts of death or suicide.
If you suffer from any of these symptoms even just a little, it is reassuring to know that there is hope, and there are lifestyle changes you can make to get through it. Some helpful ideas to try are:
- Exercise. Exercise increases the chemicals in your brain called “endorphins.” These endorphins are thought to decrease your perception of pain and increase your happiness, giving you a natural high. So, take a walk to the gym, or do calisthenics in your dorm room. Park on the far side of the lot, and walk the extra distance. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or, when it finally snows, take up a winter sport, like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or sledding. If the snowfall isn’t as deep as you’d like, you can still go for a brisk walk. (I don’t recommend jogging due to the stress it puts on joints.) Or you can extend the warm weather sports you enjoy, only with a couple extra layers of clothes!
- Fresh air. Yes, you may have to bundle up. But a dose of fresh air can lift your spirits. You may also want to open your dorm room windows for a few minutes to let the fresh air in!
- Sunshine. Besides improving our moods, sunshine actually has a reaction with your skin that produces vitamin D. Studies show that vitamin D could lessen the symptoms of depression.
- Vitamin D. If you can’t find any sunny rooms in which to hang out, or if it’s cloudy out, you can supplement with vitamin D. But, since vitamin D is absorbed by fat and is stored in your body, you may want to consult your doctor before taking large doses. The best bet is to add food rich in vitamin D to your diet. Some foods that have vitamin D are salmon, swordfish, mackerel, tuna, sardines, egg yolk, beef liver, and fortified cereal and milk.
- Proper nutrition. We can’t give our bodies the wrong fuel and expect it to operate correctly! Skip the pop and the junk food, and opt for some fresh veggies and a lean piece of meat. Add vitamin D fortified milk (see above) and some whole grains, and you will feel human again.
- Hydration. Even though you are not sweating a lot, as you do during the hot summer weather, drinking enough H2O is actually energizing, plus it helps combat the dry winter air.
- Sleep. Make sure you are getting the right amount of this. Seven to nine hours of sleep at the same time every night does wonders for the mood.
- Socialization. Yes, you need this. Go to church. Hang out with your friends. Go on a date. Take an elective class. Just don’t spend too much time alone. Be selective, and choose positive people.
- Avoiding alcohol. Alcohol is a known depressant. Overdrinking on a regular basis can cause brain damage and change your brain chemistry. Currently, the only alcohol considered healthful is five ounces of red wine per day for women, and 10 ounces per day for men.
- Light therapy. Because of the shortened daylight hours in the winter, some people do well with light therapy. If you think you would like to try it, ask your doctor to recommend a treatment.
- Talk therapy. Go talk to someone who is trained to help walk you through. Sometimes having an expert there to hold your hand is just what you need. (At Hilbert College, that expert is Psychologist Phyllis Dewey, who is located in St. Joseph Hall. Phyllis is eager to help all students with this and any other issues that crop up.)
- Antidepressants. These should be used only as a last resort after you have made lifestyle changes, especially in the areas of exercise and nutrition. There is no “happy” pill. In fact, these drugs take several weeks to kick in. Antidepressant medication has side-effects that are, well, depressing! Their dosage also needs regular fine-tuning.
- Get some perspective. In many other countries where daylight is short, the frequency of SAD is lesser than in the United States. In Norway, for instance, the people have a different mindset. Instead of rejecting the darkness and cold, they embrace it! Winter is a time to get outside and enjoy themselves, or to snuggle closer to the fire with someone they love. Another way to get perspective is by leaving campus every now and then. Also, try reading a book just for fun. You deserve it!
- Take up a craft. Some new studies have shown that spending time crafting improves mental health. Some of the crafts on the list are knitting, drawing and painting, cooking, photography, music, cake decorating, and even doing crossword puzzles. Experts believe that doing such activities increases the brain’s level of the natural anti-depressant dopamine.
- Stimulate your senses. Wear a light scent that reminds you of something positive in your life. Buy a fresh bouquet of flowers for your room. Put on some music with a positive theme, or listen to classical music. Redecorate your room to make it appear more pleasant. Have a piece of dark chocolate to reward yourself for a job well done. Get a massage, or curl up in a soft, comforting blanket. Put on a fuzzy pair of slippers. All these things stimulate your senses, and may lift your mood.
- Laugh! Have you heard, “Laughter is the best medicine”? Well, sometimes that is all you need. Whether it is joking around with a friend or watching your favorite comedy on television, try to include laughter in your life. Also, try to avoid the opposite of laughter. Turning off the news channel is a sensible idea these days. Learning what your triggers are is a great way to avoid depression and sadness.
The idea to take away is there is always hope. This year the winter solstice (the day with the least daylight) will occur on Thursday, December 21, at 11:28 a.m. After that, the daylight will lengthen again!
For more information on Seasonal Affective Disorder, click on these links: