During this time of year, it’s common to feel a little blue, lethargic and less social than usual. From post-holiday financial stress to difficulty maintaining a New Year’s resolution and–especially if you live in northern climates–adjusting to cold, dark weather makes many people feel extra gloomy and tired.
But you may also be one of estimated 11 million people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that typically starts in the fall and persists through the winter months. With SAD, the winter blues go beyond wanting to hunker down while waiting for spring. Rather. the gloominess tends to interfere with your normal functioning at home, work or in relationships.
If you feel tired, easily fatigued and just not feeling up to par this season, here are some tips to follow:
Don’t dismiss your symptoms. The hallmark of SAD is sleeping and eating too much. Other telltale signs include a down or depressed mood most of the day nearly every day, feeling constantly fatigued, loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy, struggling to focus and perform at work or home, and feeling hopeless about the future.
Talk to your doctor. You and your healthcare practitioner can determine if you’re experiencing the winter blues or SAD and what’s the best remedy. You may need a blood test to check for vitamin D levels (which can drop due to lack of sunlight), as well as a full blood count and other diagnostic tests to rule out other causes of these symptoms.
Take action. Typically, the symptoms of the winter blues–and to some extent the symptoms of SAD–are reduced by spring with the help of these self-care actions.
- Get sunlight whenever possible. Exposure to natural light can help boost serotonin hormone production and lift your mood, help regulate your circadian rhythm (body clock) for better sleeping and waking, and alter your melatonin, the hormone also associated with sleep. If you’re experiencing SAD, your provider may recommend light therapy—exposure to sessions of bright light via a special light box, potentially causing a shift in mood-lifting brain chemicals.
- Get up and move! Experts often refer to exercise as nature’s antidepressant because it can increase serotonin as well as endorphins, the feel-good hormones. Moderate exercise of at least 30 minutes most days of the week may provide the biggest mood boost. Try hiking, skiing, show shoeing, sledding with the kids or trying a new class at the gym.
- Stock up on healthy food. The winter blues can send many people to overindulge in comfort foods, such as overly starchy or sweet foods that tend to pack on the pounds. Aim to eat a balanced diet of proteins, whole grains (e.g., brown rice, quinoa) and fruits and vegetables. Studies show that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables were less likely to experience depression and other related conditions.
- Sleep, wake and eat on a regular schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to help normalize your circadian rhythms. And eat three meals a day, around the same time every day.
- Make a plan to stay connected and excited. Having something on your calendar that you look forward to can help relieve some of the gloominess you may be experiencing. Plan a trip, an outing or a get-together with friends, or try a volunteer opportunity. And remember to take time for yourself and engage in activities you enjoy.
- Consider other mood-lifting options. If these self-care efforts are not giving you any relief, ask your practitioner about Cognitive Behavior Therapy, found to be beneficial for all types of depression, which may include SAD. Antidepressants may also be an option to help regulate the chemical imbalances associated with the winter blues and SAD.
Remember, the winter blues are common, but if self-care measures don’t seem to help lift your mood, or if you have ongoing sadness, talk to your healthcare practitioner. If you have thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 for confidential crisis support.