As we move into the winter, for many this will bring with it a heaviness. Colder weather, less sunshine, the shorter days and longer nights are a combination that can take a toll on our mental wellness. The holidays are a time that is complicated for many and piled on top of that is another year of restrictions that vary from one city to the next. Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short) or the “winter blues” is possible and we’ll examine what that looks like later in this post.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a term that gets tossed around a lot this time of year and I think it’s important to gain clarity on what that really looks like because part of increasing mental health awareness is a greater understanding of terms and diagnosis that are often used interchangeably with what could be considered the “typical” range of emotions.
The Difference Between Seasonal Affective Disorder and the “Winter Blues”
First of all, I think it’s important to normalize sadness or the “winter blues”. This is a normal human emotion and one that comes up for most people. As we navigate a time of financial stress, busy schedules, and we lose a lot daylight, it is normal to feel a spike in sadness. Like any emotion, we need to acknowledge and feel it in order to move through it. This is part of self-care and general emotional wellness. I’m not saying it’s easy by any means, but human emotions are unavoidable and manageable.
However, when someone experiences increasing symptoms of depression, helplessness and hopelessness that feels overwhelming and gets stronger as they move closer to the shortest day of the year, there’s a high likelihood we’re treading into SAD territory.
So What Exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms and signs of fall and winter SAD may include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Tiredness or low energy
- Significant changes in your weight
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for food high in carbohydrates
- Feeling agitated or sluggish
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or strong feelings of guilt
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
I’m going to share a number of ways to minimize the impact of SAD and the less extreme but still difficult “winter blues”. It’s important to note that if you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD that don’t feel manageable on your own, that help is available. Reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for support.
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder or the “Winter Blues”
Oftentimes when the colder weather descends upon us, we lose our desire to spend much time outside. But research shows that there are significant benefits to spending daily time outside – there’s nothing like inhaling fresh air (even if it’s cold). Invest in high quality winter gear and being outside in the chilly weather will feel much more manageable.
Our bodies need sunlight. Even if it’s a cloudy day, there is still major benefit to soaking up daylight. 10-15 minutes with the light shining directly on your face will help with your Circadian Rhythm and promotes improved mood, increased energy and a better sleep. You can also pick up a therapy lamp that many people swear by during the darker months. Especially if you find the winter months particularly difficult on your mental health. Or if you live in a location where getting outdoors in the winter can be tough due to extreme weather conditions.
Connect to your body
We all know that movement is good for us, but even more-so in the winter when energy decreases and lethargy can set in. It does not matter what the movement is, just move. Walk your dog, go for a swim, do hot yoga, do pilates in your living room, lift weights, join a spin class. Also, spend time checking in with your body – do a scan from head to toe and ask yourself how you’re feeling. What cues is your body giving you of how you’re feeling – do you have heaviness in your chest? Do you have tightness in your shoulders? Do you have a headache? These are often messages that we need to train ourselves to tune into.
Nourish your body
If you’re anything like me, as soon as the colder months descend upon us, I instantly crave savoury, creamy, and warm food. While it’s great to eat these kinds of things, it’s important to have balance around how we’re nourishing our bodies. Continuing to incorporate fruits and veggies, decreasing sugar and alcohol consumption and supplementing with vitamins is important to integrate into our daily routines (Vitamin D is a big one for most but consult a naturopath for vitamin/supplement recommendations).
Connect with others
Make a plan with a friend to go to a workout class, set up a happy hour with co-workers, host a small gathering for a board game night. Connection is healthy for us and while it take a bit more intention when it’s colder out, it almost always feels great after we do something with people we enjoy spending time with.
Plan things to look forward to
Having something on the schedule, even if it’s small, helps us move from one day to the next. Maybe that looks like planning a date night every other week, or scheduling a dinner party once a month with friends. Time feels like it moves quicker when we have things we’re excited about and working towards.
I must say, I’ve never regretted putting my phone down for a few hours. It can be so easy to fall into the trap that is social media, especially when we’re cooped up in the house. One of my rules with my phone is that when I feel tired just looking at it, it’s time to put it away. I almost always come back feeling refreshed after I stop scrolling so am making a mental note to do this more often through the winter.
Try indoor or winter hobbies
There are a lot of hobbies that are great during the winter! If you enjoy getting outside, things like skiing/snowboarding, snowshoeing, winter hikes, skating, or sledding can all be tried. Or if you’d prefer to do more things indoors, you could try signing up for a dance or workout class, taking a virtual cooking class with your partner, making puzzles, reading, or taking up a type of art. Sit down and write out a list of hobbies you’d like to try this winter.
Seek professional support for treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder or the “winter blues”
There is not shame in reaching out to someone. Every single person struggles and needs others. And there is a ton of research that shows how much healing happens in healthy connection with other people. With the rise in virtual mental health supports available, it’s never been easier to connect with a therapist – you can even do it from the comfort of your home. I have clients who do sessions with me from their closet, from their car, from their garage, and from their bedroom. If you’re unsure of where to start with finding a counsellor, feel free to check out my therapy practice here. Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder also sometimes looks like connecting with your family doctor and discussing medication options, so keep that on your radar if you find yourself really struggling.
Focus on what you can control
There are a lot of things we don’t have control over – the weather, how others conduct themselves, etc. But we do have control over how we spend our days, the recharging activities we incorporate, how we nourish and move our bodies, and how we process the things that we’re feeling. By focusing on the things we have control over, it leaves us feeling more empowered.
Surround yourself with comfort
There’s not better time to focus on bringing in warmth and comfort into your space. Pull out your softest blankets and quilts, invest in comfortable loungewear and slippers, burn those candles you’ve been saving, cook and bake nourishing food you’re excited to eat. Make a list of things that bring you comfort and then reference that when you need to give yourself a “mental hug”.
A bit of intention around this one goes a long way. Stop and savour the things around you that fill you up with gratitude. I use the Five Minute Journal and have found it to be a simple and positive ritual to incorporate into my mornings
Remind yourself that nothing is permanent
If all else fails, it can be helpful to repeat the mantra “this too shall pass” because nothing is permanent. Emotions aren’t permanent, winter isn’t permanent, bad days aren’t permanent, pandemics aren’t permanent, getting dark at 5pm isn’t permanent.
Feel free to add any other ideas in the comments below and take care of yourself, friends!