With February’s arrival, we find ourselves in the midst of the winter doldrums: the holidays are far in the rearview mirror, the once-exciting sight of falling snow has lost its charm, and it feels like it's been ages since we’ve felt the sun.During this final, seemingly endless stretch of the season, our moods typically take a turn for the worst. Nearly 15 percent of Americans experience some form of winter blues, with six percent struggling with its more severe version: seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is much more than a mid-winter slump. Officially recognized in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), seasonal affective disorder is categorized as a subset of major depressive disorder. Its symptoms include fatigue, reduced productivity, changes in appetite, and decreased interest in hobbies or activities, among others.
If you have severe symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, you should contact your doctor or a mental health professional. But if you’re among those experiencing milder versions of these signs, there are steps you can take to bolster your mood until spring.
1. Get your sunlight fix.
One major biological cause of winter malaise is a lack of exposure to the sun. Natural light promotes the production of hormones like serotonin (a chemical contributor to the feeling of happiness) and melatonin (the hormone associated with sleep). Exposure to sunlight can also course-correct your body clock, which the darker winter months can often interfere with. There are special lamps that emit light similar to the sun rays, which can give these same benefits from just a few minutes of use a day.
2. Get some exercise.
It’s often the last thing you want to do (especially in the winter weather), but physical activity helps increase serotonin levels and releases endorphins, another “feel-good” hormone. Take advantage of seasonal exercises like skiing, snowboarding, hiking or sledding, or beat the cold by going to the gym or taking an indoor fitness class.
3. Eat more nutritious foods.
The holidays usually aren’t the healthiest times for our diets, and that can seriously impact our mood come late winter. Research indicates that people who consume more fruits and vegetables were less likely to experience SAD and its symptoms.
4. Get out of the house.
After the holidays, it’s tempting to bunker down and be a bit of a shut-in until the weather warms up. But isolation can often worsen your mood, not improve it. Consider a regular meetup or get-together with friends, or even plan a trip. Having a few things to look forward to on the calendar makes a larger difference than you think!
5.Get into a routine.
Our circadian rhythm impacts our mood in a major way, and the dark winter days infamously interrupt our sleep cycles. By going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, as well as regularly eating three balanced meals, you can help keep your natural cycle in check.
6. Use your EAP.
Many companies offer a no-cost Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help their team members cope through issues just like these. Today’s HR departments understand the challenges that come after the holidays, and can offer assistance in finding childcare, eldercare, and other resources to help ease the work-life balance and alleviate post-holiday stress. And if your symptoms continue to persist, a qualified EAP counselor can direct you to long-term help.
Winter can be a tough time for everyone, and it’s normal to experience the telltale signs of the seasonal blues. But remember, SAD is a serious condition, and if your mood worsens, be sure to reach out to a medical professional.
Source: Parekh, Ranna. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Jan. 2017, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder.