If you live in Upstate New York like me (or any part of the country facing shorter days, less sunlight, and colder weather), your body and mind may be rebelling against these seasonal changes with mood shifts and decreased energy levels. Some people experience this in a pattern that occurs every winter and lifts in the spring. If this pattern impacts your day-to-day functioning, you may be experiencing a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What is SAD?
SAD is a condition affecting millions of people across the United States each year. This condition occurs more commonly in women; people living in dark, cold climates; and people who have a predisposition to mental health struggles. Someone who has a mood disorder already is more likely to experience extra sensitivity to the changes that come with the seasons.
People with SAD can experience the following symptoms during the winter months:
- increased depression
- desire to sleep more
- increase in appetite
- low energy
- loss of interest in activities you enjoy
- feelings of agitation
- social withdrawal
Disclaimer: MOST people struggle with some of these symptoms at some point or another. If you live in a wintry climate, it’s not uncommon to have a touch of SAD going on. This is due to what happens in our body when we have less sunlight. The symptoms listed above can be your body’s normal response to a change in season. However, if you find yourself feeling so depressed that it is hard to get out of bed in the morning, you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or your functioning to be significantly impacted on a day-to-day basis, it is advisable to seek out a mental health counselor and/or your doctor to talk about this.
What causes SAD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the exact causes of SAD are unknown. There are, however, some biological changes that have been measured in people exhibiting SAD symptoms that give us some clues.
- People with SAD have trouble regulating one of the main chemicals in the brain responsible for regulating mood: serotonin. When serotonin is out of whack, this can lead to mood shifts.
- People with SAD may produce less Vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity. Vitamin D insufficiency may be associated with depression.
- People with SAD may overproduce melatonin. Melatonin is responsible for regulating sleep. Increased darkness = increased melatonin. This can lead to lower energy levels and increased desire for sleep.
Holistic approaches to combatting SAD symptoms:
I am a strong believer that the best place to start when coping with this condition is to keep it simple. When it comes to determining the best way to manage any mental health symptoms, including those associated with SAD, the last thing you want to do is throw your body in a whirlwind by making any drastic changes. Don’t turn your world upside down in an attempt to find an answer. What is most effective in combatting any mental health symptoms is to start by paying attention to the basics about how you are treating your body and mind.
Here are some questions you may want to think about if you are experiencing the winter blues:
What are you eating?
- A balanced diet is key to all aspects of your health, including mental and physical. If you are eating like crap, you will feel like crap. You cannot expect to feel good emotionally if you are not taking care of your physical body. Eating processed food leads to inflammation in your body. Inflammation leads to overall malaise and mental health symptoms.
- Mindful indulgence in a warm and healthy soup or roasted root vegetables can be good for both your body and your mind. There are so many healthy and delicious options that can satisfy cravings for comfort food (including vegan and gluten-free). A few of my favorite Instagramers to check out for healthy and amazing looking recipes are Deliciously Ella and Lee from America.
- Vitamin deficiency can seriously impact your mood, especially if you are lacking Vitamin D or B vitamins. I would highly recommended seeing a trained nutritionist and getting some blood work done to check out your vitamin levels. Based on what comes up, a nutritionist can recommend a vitamin regime to help. Be wary of taking too many supplements without the guidance of a professional (it can damage your kidneys). Vitamins are not regulated by the FDA and it is important to know exactly what you are taking (the brand matters) and how much to take. I take the Metagenics brand. Each day, I take a probiotic that supports respiratory health, a fish oil, and a multivitamin.
What does your daily routine consist of?
- Our. bodies. love. routine. I have personally struggled a lot with this one. I eventually found myself running at least 15 minutes late to work EVERY morning because I did not have a good morning ritual to help me get out there door. Something that helped me a lot was writing out my morning schedule in ten minute increments. This included ten minutes of meditation and excluded any time spent on my phone. Physically writing out a plan that I can look at every day has helped me tremendously. Being on time for work is such a simple thing that helps start your day off on a much better note than rushing in late.
- There are so many other additional benefits of having a solid routine. Routine can help reduce stress by eliminating the number of choices that we have to make throughout the day. Less choices = less stress. If you know what you are having for breakfast every morning, what time you plan to go to the gym, and what time you start winding down for bed at night, you are doing your body and mind a huge favor. Your body will adapt to consistent routines, even busy ones, which will ultimately help you feel more in control throughout your day.
Are you doing things to increase your daily feelings of joy?
- What makes you feel good? And are you doing enough of this? I have really been challenging myself with examining the use of my phone. I have noticed that when I spend 30 minutes scrolling on my phone, I feel unaccomplished and guilty after. I feel like I have lost 30 minutes of my day for nothing. When I spend 30 minutes doing something that involves creativity, I feel so much better and relaxed.
Is there an underlying problem you are ignoring that just happens to creep up around the winter months?
- Different seasons can be reminiscent of times in our life that may have been hard for us. Holidays can be difficult for some and bring challenging family dynamics to the forefront.
- Pay attention to the patterns of how you feel during each season. Write about what hurts, or talk to someone about what hurts. Addressing these patterns head on can help you reclaim power over your mood states.
- Exercise! Do some hot yoga, skiing, snowshoeing, or even just a few minutes of a workout on You Tube before you go to work in the morning. Exercise boosts endorphins, which can improve your mood.
- Try aromatherapy (I use Young Living). There are tons of essential oils that can help boost mood and improve health in general. If you are looking for guidance with Young Living, I know some great reps so feel free to email me and I can set you up with them!
- Get a light therapy energy lamp for your office. One of my office spaces does not have a window, so I recently ordered the Verilux Happy Light (Full-Size) off Amazon.
- Be patient. Figuring out a way to manage your SAD symptoms effectively may take some experimentation and time.