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How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder or Winter Depression

Updated on August 13, 2015

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Are you one of the millions of people who are affected by winter depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? Symptoms may include difficulty waking up in the morning, morning sickness, afternoon headaches, tendency to oversleep and over eat, especially a craving for carbohydrates, feeling lethargic, difficulty concentrating or completing tasks, becoming socially withdrawn, and decreased sex drive. It can range from manageable, to debilitating and can strongly impact your work, home and social life. The good news is, there are ways to prevent worsening symptoms and help you stop feeling this way year after year.

Are you also trying to be healthier, more fit, or to lose weight? Perhaps you made a New Years Resolution to lose weight? It can be very hard to muster the motivation to accomplish your goals when feeling depressive. You probably don't have the desire to cook, or to clean up the mess after, which may lead you to eating more convenience foods. You may feel entitled to treat yourself more often- not unlike the way that lipstick sales jump when the economy slumps. Or you may feel drawn to comfort foods that make you feel like a warm hug from your mother that tells you everything will get better. You certainly don't feel like getting up and exercising and you might start negotiating with your self to lower or postpone your goals.

Part of this urge to slow down and crave heavier foods is a biological imperative that helped our ancestors survive before homes were heated and grocery stores and refrigeration made having food on hand a thing we take for granted. Its a healthy part of being human... however, we don't live in the world that our ancestors lived in and we no longer need to fatten up for winter and conserve our energy or ration our food.

Here are a few things that can be the cause of depression during the winter and how to combat them:

Who said it has to be a snowman? Why not a snowrabbit?
Who said it has to be a snowman? Why not a snowrabbit? | Source

Shorter days

In the winter, the days are shorter and there's less daylight. This signals our brain to make changes in our serotonin and circadian systems (which play a role in energy, mood, and hunger). You can counteract this effect by a method called light therapy. Within the first hour that you are awake in the morning- expose yourself to bright light, preferably full spectrum light. There are special light boxes for this, as well as natural alarm clocks, but even replacing your light bulbs with brighter ones and turning on all your lights in the morning can make a small difference. Don't avoid the light- drink it in like you would in the summertime.

Slower social calendar

In the summertime, there's all sorts of social activities going on- cookouts, parties, swimming, boating, fishing, outdoor sports, fireworks, amusement parks, big summer blockbuster movies, bonfires, etc. The winter isn't as conducive to these social gatherings and most of your friends are probably not that motivated to organize them right now either. That just means that its your turn to be the ringleader now- invite everyone over for a healthy dinner, or get a group together to see a movie in the theater, for example. Its also a great time to explore what organizations are out there to get involved in and meet new friends. There may even be a group you're already part of that you could become more involved with.

Being cooped up

There is nothing good about spending too much time at home. In the winter, it may be unpleasant outside or the preparation with the coat and scarf and gloves, may feel like it inhibits your spontaneity. Push yourself to spend as little time in your home as possible (you'll save on heating too if you cut the thermostat back during the day while you're out) The more time you can spend out of the house, the better. It is preferable to spend time outside in the daylight and to spend time with family and friends, but even getting out of the house alone is good. Use any excuse you can. Go for a walk to look at all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood, play in the snow, build a snowman, go sledding, go skiing, or just go walk around the mall. Anything you can do for a change in scenery and to get your blood pumping. Being physically active also produces endorphins- so especially when you don't feel like exercising, you should be exercising!

The winter time may also present you with having to deal with negative people. Maybe you have a judgmental family member that you see around the holidays, or your best friend is having relationship issues. The first thing to remember is that other people's problems are not your problems. You can sympathize and be supportive but have boundaries and don't personalize their issues. If its someone who is putting you down, walk away and turn to someone who is supportive. Do not give your time to people who drain you, no matter how much you care for them. Surround yourself with supportive, positive people. If someone wants to be around you, they'll get the point that you don't want to hear their negativity and they will adapt. This may sound harsh, but they will have to find the positivity within themselves and that will be a very good thing for them as well. Don't be a bully about it- assert that you care about them but you do not care about their negativity. Perhaps share something with them like “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't- you're always right.” Start new topics of conversation about positive things you can agree on.

There is also an experimental therapy for seasonal affective disorder that was actually stumbled on by accident during other tests. It is called ionic therapy. Have you ever used an ionic air purifier? You know how it smells like the air after a spring thunderstorm? This is because of the ionic charge of the air. There are billions of negatively charged ions produced both by springtime storms and by ionic air purifiers. No one is quite sure why yet, but sleeping next to one of these air purifiers may actually help combat winter depression as well. Worth trying- what's the worst that could happen, you breath cleaner air?

Hopefully you can see that there's no reason to just accept this feeling during the winter. You can do something about depression. Mastering the winter slump will help you stay motivated in your weight management goals.

Quick Guide - How to cope with...

Shorter Days
Get a Natural Light alarm clock. Expose yourself to as much daylight as possible. Use brighter indoor lighting, or get special light therapy boxes. Take a vitamin D supplement. Some studies suggest high doses of vitamin C (1500mg) can help also- ask your doctor or pharmacist as this will have a blood thinning effect.
Less going on
Get involved and socialize as much as possible. Be the leader- invite people over. Find local groups and organizations to join. If you are a churchgoer, see what you can do to help there. There are many other service organizations as well, if you are not a churchgoer.
Cooped up inside
Brave the cold- play outside in the snow like you're a little kid again. Make excuses to leave the house. I stopped making large weekly grocery trips a long time ago because going for what I need for each day helps me battle depression by getting me out of the house- and I cook with the freshest possible ingredients.

The Thought, Behavior, Physiology Connection

Believe it or not, when you "change your mind", you physically change your brain and your body. Mind over matter prevails. A positive attitude can make the world of difference with depression. I can't say it any better than this excerpt from "Excuses Begone" by Dr. Wayne W Dyer:

"In a variety of studies on severe depression, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcers, and even cancer, the power of the mind to overcome these maladies trumps the conventional wisdom of treating the cells rather than the environment in which they reside. The new biology is clearly indicating that beliefs- some of which are conscious and most of which are subconscious (or habitual)- determine our physical and mental health, along with our level of happiness and success."

Of course, there is a little more to it than having a positive attitude, but this is not to be overlooked either. It is certainly the foundation of successfully treating any difficult condition. Just like changing your mind changes your body, changing your body changes your mind- this is the reason that antidepressants may help. There is a third leg to this trifecta however- behavior. The way you think affects the things you do. If you are thinking positively, you will behave in positive ways. If you are thinking destructively or counterproductively, you will behave the same. This also works vice versa. If you change the things you do and consciously try to act as you would if you were feeling happy- your thoughts and even your brain chemistry will follow. The most basic demonstration of this is smiling. When you smile, your brain reflexively produces hormones and neurotransmitters that make you happy. Whether it starts with the way you think, the things you do, or the chemicals in your body- the rest will follow. Sometimes I have to tell myself to "fake it til you make it" to force a smile before I feel happy, but I always end up feeling better in the end. I recently shared another Wayne Dyer quote with my Facebook fans, "Treat yourself as if you already are what you want to become."

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    • Matthew Ryczko profile image

      Matthew Ryczko 6 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks for the encouragement! I'm glad you found it helpful (:

    • Cammiebar profile image

      Cammiebar 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      Very good suggestions! Keep it up!