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Winter is Coming:

How to Overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder by Maintaining Your Mental and Physical Health

Photo by Kylo on Unsplash
Photo by Kylo on Unsplash

Game of Thrones fans know that “Winter Is Coming” is the motto for House Stark. But for the more than three million Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or “the winter blues,” the coming of shorter days and less sunshine is not just a fantasy catchphrase. 

Those who struggle with SAD often begin experiencing symptoms in the early fall and continue into the dark and gloomy winter months. Since SAD can cause fatigue, anxiety, and apathy, preparing for it is just as important as prepping for the back to school and holiday seasons.

SAD is more likely to impact women between the ages of 20 to 30 years of age, who live in northern cities, according to Mental Health America, and the symptoms include: depressed mood, loss of energy, sleep problems, anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Many also experience a change in appetite, particularly a craving for carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain. 

Scientists believe SAD is caused by a biochemical change in the “biological clock” (circadian rhythm) when reduced sunlight triggers decreased serotonin and melatonin levels. Lower levels of vitamin D are also associated with increased symptoms of SAD, and an estimated one billion people worldwide have vitamin D deficiency. In one NIH study, adults who received high doses of vitamin D saw an improvement in their depressive symptoms after two months.

The “winter blues” can not only impact your personal life, but your work life as well. In fact, 1 in 3 American workers say winter has a negative impact on their mood at work. 

That’s why it’s even more important to focus on your physical and mental wellbeing during the winter months. Here are a few steps to take to prepare when “Winter is coming”:

  • Get outside or bring nature indoors. Research shows the positive correlation between time spent outside and reduced stress, depression, and anxiety. Calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while certain scents within nature, such as jasmine, pine and lilacs have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Exercise more toward the end of summer and keep going through the cooler seasons. Exercise decreases stress and tension as well as reduces depression and anxiety. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic or muscle-strengthening exercises three to five days a week.
  • Meditate or use stress management techniques. Various methods of meditation and stress management such as deep breathing techniques, a gratitude journal, yoga, and more can be easily incorporated into your daily routine. However you practice mindfulness, research proves that meditation helps with anxiety and depression, cancer, chronic pain, asthma, heart disease and high blood pressure. 
  • Seek professional help early. If SAD affects you, Mental Health America provides tips to find the right mental health provider.
  • Start your lightbox in October. If you plan to use bright light therapy to combat the shorter daylight, you should begin noticing more energy and an improved mood within a few weeks. Many people notice an immediate response to light therapy. The Mayo Clinic offers more information about how to get started, where to purchase a lightbox, and more.
  • Plan a vacation to a sunny spot. If you can’t bask in the sunlight at home, consider traveling to a sunny locale where you can soak in the natural sunlight. Pack your flip flops, a good book, and leave your winter worries behind.

It’s normal to have bad days every now and then. But, if you’re feeling down for days on end or even weeks at a time, you may want to consider talking with your healthcare provider. Whether it’s SAD or something else, your doctor can ensure you are as strong as possible, both mentally and physically, to weather the storms.  

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