Five Ways to Keep Yourself From Getting SAD This Winter
The mornings are getting chillier. The days are getting darker. And pumpkin spice is almost everywhere. It can only mean one thing- fall and winter are fast approaching. What does this mean for us? Besides busting out the winter coats and packing away our swimsuits, it means that we are moving in to a time of year that significantly affects our mood and overall wellbeing.
SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression that is impacted by seasonal patterns. It goes beyond “the winter blues”. There’s a big difference between SAD and low mood during the winter months. SAD is distressing, overwhelming and can impair an individual’s daily functioning. It is a pattern of mood change that has been observable for at least two consecutive years. Low mood, on the other hand, is usually linked to seasonal psychosocial stressors. Examples of these stressors could be seasonal unemployment, the stress of being back in school, Christmas shopping, or reflecting on your life and the changes you’d like to make around New Year.
What can you do to be proactive with your mood this winter?
1. Check in with your doctor and receive regular care as needed.
If you have noticed this shift in mood for the last two years, talk to your doctor about SAD.
- If you are currently taking medications for your mental wellness, review your current medications, dosages, and the effectiveness of these meds. Sometimes people will decrease the dose of their meds in the summer because they feel better, but they may need to increase the dose to support their mental health over the winter months.
- Doctor visits are also helpful in ruling out medical disorders that may be contributing to any symptoms you are experiencing. For example, if you are noticing weight gain, it is possible that a thyroid issue needs to be addressed.
2. Make use of nature’s antidepressants.
Sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social connection are all vital to your mental wellness, regardless of the season! However, we need to be a little more mindful and creative as to how we use these tools in the winter months.
- The change in light during the winter months impacts our circadian clock, sleep, and alertness. Light enters your eye, goes to your retina, travels down a nerve tract, and then sends a signal to your circadian clock to go to sleep or wake up. That means the light/dark cycle of the sun is very powerful. When we have reduced access to light, it can impact our sleep patterns and our moods. Thanks to lightbulbs, we no longer have to rely on the sun to dictate our sleep. But lightbulbs don’t give us what natural light gives us.
- One treatment for disrupted circadian rhythms is Light Therapy, which involves sitting near a light therapy box that mimics natural outdoor light. If you think Light Therapy may be something you are interested in, discuss this with your doctor.
- Melatonin may also be something to discuss with your doctor.
- Ensuring good sleep hygiene will also have an impact on your sleep.
- Not surprisingly, the quality of our produce is impacted by the natural growing season. Eating seasonally is awesome because it gives you the best produce, chockfull of the nutrients you need for a healthy body. The produce we eat out of season isn’t as nutritionally rich and frozen produce also has reduced vitamins and minerals. We aren’t getting the same amount of vitamins and minerals in our diet during the winter months. I once knew a psychiatrist who would say “if there’s snow on the ground, you take a multivitamin”.
- Vitamin D is very important for us to have in the winter. It’s often called the sunshine vitamin. The reduction in hours of sunlight means we need to up our intake. Besides eating foods rich in Vitamin D, taking additional Vitamin D may be of help. Discuss any vitamins you are taking or thinking of taking with your doctor.
- Following the Canada Food Guide will also aid you in getting your fill of all the foods your body needs.
- Some of us have access to nutritionists or dieticians through a Primary Care Network or privately. If this option is available to you, consult with that professional about how to ensure you are giving your body what it needs during the winter months.
- The Canadian 24-Hour Movement & Activity Guidelines suggest that adults are active at least 2.5 hours a week. Moderate to vigorous aerobic activity lasting 10 or more minutes is encouraged.
- Summer makes it easier to be active- taking walks, going for bike rides, swimming at the lake or outdoor pool, and playing lots of different sports. Winter definitely impacts the ways in which we are able to move our bodies. This is a time to explore, be curious, and try new things! Winter sports are always an option- skating, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, curling, snowshoeing, etc.
- When it’s too cold out, we can still move our bodies in different ways indoors. Of course you can go to the gym if you have a membership and enjoy that environment. But we are more likely to exercise if we are doing something we enjoy. So if the gym isn’t for you, you may try an at-home yoga practice, following workout videos on YouTube, turning up your favourite playlist and dancing, vigorously scrubbing a bathtub, playing with your kids. Anything that increases your heart rate for 10 minutes is perfect!
- I know we are living in a time where social connection has been rare or infrequent. Many of us have had to problem solve in this area for the last 2 (ish) years. Zoom, meeting outdoors, phone calls, FaceTime, online groups have all been great alternatives to our pre-COVID social gatherings. Humans are pack animals- even after 10, 000 plus years we continue to need others around us to help meet our needs and ensure our survival. Loneliness is on the rise and is contributing to a plethora of health problems, and not just mental health.
3. Make time for the things that you love.
This is important regardless of what time of year it is. If you stop doing the things you love, that lack of joy and fulfillment can create a low mood. Once you’re in a low mood, it gets harder to have the energy and motivation to do the things you love. So start small, making sure you build time in to your schedule to do one joyful activity a day. This could be jamming out to music in your car on the way to work, it could be a hobby, it could be spending time with someone special.
4. Practice gratitude often.
- For those of you who have met me, you know I’m a big fan of gratitude journaling (or gratitude mental note taking). Every day take the time to find three things that you are grateful for- and it doesn’t have to be huge things at all! You can be grateful for having feet to walk on. You can be grateful that the person in front of you in the drive thru paid for your coffee. You can be grateful that the milk in your fridge is still good even though it’s past the Best Before date. You can be grateful for anything in this life, big or small.
- My gratefulness list as I write this is: the cold autumn air coming through the window and into my very hot apartment, the fact that there are hundreds (millions?) of yoga YouTube videos that I can watch for free, and that some incredible human created cookie dough that you can eat raw without getting salmonella.
5. Take the time to check in with yourself.
- Have you ever had the Check Engine Light come on in your car and you are perplexed as to why? You feel like you’ve been doing everything you need to keep that baby in tip top condition, so you ignore the light. And after months of ignoring this light, it becomes part of your car- “Oh, don’t worry about that light! That’s just something my car does.” Until one day you’re driving along the highway and black billowing smoke is coming up from the engine. You pull over and have to call for roadside assistance. You find out your engine is really messed up. The roadside assistance guy gives you the talk about bringing your car in as soon as it tells you something is wrong and how it could’ve saved you lots of money… Do you see where I’m going with this? Pay attention to your internal check engine light because ignoring it isn’t taking you anywhere good.
- Try to do a body scan once in a while. Sit comfortably with your feet on the floor and eyes open or closed. Start at the top of your head and check in with any sensations you are getting there. Notice the sensations and continue to move down your body, bit by bit, until you’ve checked in with everything, including your toes. You may have noticed a clenched jaw, tightness in your chest, or curled up toes- these sensations are clues that our body provides to help us figure out how we are really feeling.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this information, that’s okay. It’s a lot to be trying to put in place all at once. Take your time and go slow. You might pick one area to focus on for a couple of weeks. If it feels manageable, you may add another area. If you feel like you need a little more time to build a habit or get in routine, then pause on adding anything until you feel confident that you can manage more.
Each of us respond uniquely to strategies, interventions, tips and tricks. A helpful addition to the information above, is to talk to a psychologist about any seasonal changes you may be experiencing with your mental wellness. Our team is here to support you through the winter months. If you feel like you may benefit from attending therapy, please connect with us.
Written by Danielle Charron, Registered Psychologist