Shorter days and longer nights can bring on the winter blues or seasonal mood changes. You’re a bit down, extra tired, less motivated – unless it’s food – and you want to eat more.
Some people suffer from a debilitating depression called seasonal affective disorder. SAD is beyond the winter blahs and leans into distressing and overwhelming symptoms that can interfere with daily functions, says the American Psychiatric Association. About 5% of U.S. adults experience SAD, and it can be treated with the help of a doctor or mental health professional.
For many Pacific Northwest residents, the seasonal impact descends into that winter blues category, said Dr. Craig Lammers, a MultiCare Rockwood psychologist. You can find more light at tunnel’s end with several self-help tactics, he said.
“There will be a number of people here in the Northwest who would probably fit into the diagnostic category of seasonal affective disorder, but there’s going to be a lot of people as well where this is going to be much more mild, what we referred to in the past as the winter blues,” Lammers said.
The intensity of SAD can vary. “Just as other forms of depression that we have, people can have very mild cases of that, moderate episodes or very severe episodes of that,” Lammers said.
While some animals hibernate in the winter, you should resist the urge to sleep more, said Dr. Ramanpreet Toor, a University of Washington psychiatrist.
“I highly recommend having some structure in the day and in the evening,” Toor said, including to keep a regular sleep schedule.
Both seasonal mood changes and SAD are thought to be primarily linked to the shortened days, which is thought to affect our bodies’ cues of light and darkness that “set” the sleep-wake cycle and the release of melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in that cycle. Genetics and distance from the equator are factors, as well.
Lammers said research indicates the shortened daylight time seems to impact the body regarding lessened serotonin levels, a chemical in the brain active in moderating moods, and a lowered vitamin D level.
“As we have less sunlight, our vitamin D level has a tendency to go down as it’s absorbed somewhat through the eyes and skin,” Lammers said. “Vitamin D has been found to be linked to mood stabilization, so when you have those two together, that’s what researchers seem to think is a primary link between daylight and why mood can be impacted.”
A UW article also describes how the day’s lengths of light and dark are thought to affect our bodies. “It might be related to how the hormone melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin work in our bodies in response to these light cues.”
These are reasons why many people like to travel south in the winter if they can, Lammers said.
“A good way to think about it is the farther north you go from the Equator, typically the more likely you’re going to be seeing seasonal affective disorder,” he said. “The gray skies, the rain, the snow, the cold temperatures don’t help, but it seems primarily related to daylight.”
There are steps that help, beyond travel, said both Lammers and Toor.
Light box therapy
Purchase a light box that you sit in front of for about 30 to 60 minutes a day. You can be reading as long as you’re stationary in front of the light, Lammers said.
Toor recommends working with a doctor to ensure what’s right for you. A general recommendation is to get a light box with 10,000 lux, which is a measure of the amount of light you receive. However, she also cautions that people should read up on whether a light box has some eye protection features.
“What’s important to keep in mind are the intensity of the light, time of exposure, duration of exposure and position of the light box,” she said. “Most studies have shown benefit in the morning, the moment you wake up, and duration is between 30 to 60 minutes depending on how people react. I usually start people at 30 minutes the moment they wake up.”
Take vitamin D
This is definitely the time of year to be taking a daily recommended dose of vitamin D, Lammers said. Combined with getting outside and light box therapy, a supplement helps.
“What you’re doing then, besides trying to increase the absorption of sunlight, you’re also supplementing that through these pills,” Lammers said. “That should bring your vitamin D level up into a healthy range that your body needs.”
Even a short walk helps, or get creative with activities that set you in motion. “Exercise has been shown over and over to have the same potential positive impact as a good antidepressant does,” Lammers said. “Exercise to me is probably the best thing you can do for yourself.”
Some people who can’t get outside can try walking in a mall with friends, he added, or exercise on indoor stationary equipment such as a treadmill. “Getting a little creative, you can find ways to be more active. It’s also good for people who love to go snowshoeing or skiing.”
Make it part of your lifestyle to get exercise and to go outside at least briefly if you can, Toor said. “I’d recommend to go outside even if it’s a cloudy day because you get much higher exposure to light compared with if you’re sitting inside.”
Avoid alcohol and eat healthier
It might be tempting to unwind with drinks, but alcohol is a depressant, so be cautious. Focus on a healthy diet, Toor said. She suggests eating more multigrain foods and a Mediterranean-type diet with fish and chicken. “It’s OK to treat yourself if you’re balancing with exercise, sleep and structure. It doesn’t mean you can’t eat chocolate.”
Ask a doctor or therapist
Consider professional help if winter blues linger, Lammers said. “Some people really benefit from some counseling or therapy during this time of year. It’s not unusual when depressed or in a darker time of year that we have more negative patterns of thinking. A therapist can help you reflect and make changes, perhaps more realistic things you have control over.”
Be social and plan fun
Try to increase your social interactions, which might be challenging due to COVID-19. But reach out, even if it’s just a call, and avoid being withdrawn and alone. “Socializing or meeting with loved ones has been shown in studies to boost your mood,” Toor said.
She also encourages planning regular fun activities you can look forward to doing and that add some structure to life, even if it’s reading a favorite book. “We focus so much on planning during the summer when it’s already beautiful. It’s very important to have plans in the winter whether vacation plans or daily things like having some time with family, playing a game or cooking together. Make some plans that are both self-care and positive experiences.”
Pops of color and light
Add bright paint or more lighting to help lift your mood. Toor isn’t opposed to turning on more lights in the early evening, a wise move she said her mom always did. Now, studies back the benefits. Another practice is use of dawn simulation lights in a bedroom, a technology that slowly increases lighting as you wake.
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