Fall and winter bring cooler, darker nights and mornings. Along with the temperature and light change, we are about to change the clocks again and cooler temps will arrive. Consider the physical, emotional, and relational ways you may be affected by this transition. This in addition to living during pandemic times.
The impact of light and temperature on the human body is profound. We all need some level of light and warmth for our bodies to survive and thrive. Autumn, for some parts of the world, marks a change in both light and warmth as we approach colder and darker days.
Many people struggle with seasonal affective mood issues, commonly referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—a depression related to the change in seasons. For most, this begins in fall and continues through the winter months. It’s marked by moodiness, low energy, difficulty sleeping, a lack of interest in activities and relationships, feeling hopeless, and an overall sense of depression. Known more casually as “the winter blues,” SAD can have a significant impact on your mood and relationships. If you are more irritable, withdrawn, or moody during the winter months, the time to plan and prepare is now.
Why do we get down in the winter? Less sunlight affects your circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that governs certain brain wave activity and hormone production. This shift can change mood-related chemicals in a way that can cause depression.
Here are a few tips to protect your mental health during the shorter days of fall and winter.
1. Get outdoors & absorb real sunlight
If you can manage to sneak away for even 10 or 15 minutes at lunchtime to get outside and soak in as many rays as possible, you’ll get a decent-enough sunshine fix. Or put on your coat and gloves and brave the cold during the weekend for a nice long walk at noon. I run all year round, even if I have to wear several layers! Getting outdoors in fresh air can feel good, even if only for short spurts.
2. Take a Vitamin D Supplement
Consider taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter months. Many diseases are correlated with low vitamin D levels, especially depression. Even if you’re not feeling low, I would have your levels checked, which your primary care physician can do. Your doctor can help you determine the best amount of vitamin D to take, if you need it.
3. Get some exercise
Although we've known for decades that exercise can decrease depression symptoms, exercise can increase the levels of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, both of which are depleted in the brains of people with depression and anxiety. If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.
4. Consider using a light box
Light boxes are the typical light system used for SAD in clinical studies. They're flat screens that produce full-spectrum fluorescent light, usually at an intensity of 10,000 lux(lux is the measure of visible light). It’s important to position a light box according to the manufacturer’s instructions and use it at the same time each day, typically for 30 to 60 minutes. Most people get the best results when they use a light box before 10 a.m.
5. Connect with friends and loved ones
Winter can be a time of hibernation for many, especially with the cold and darkness. While rest and slowing down is important, be aware if you are feeling lonely and isolated which can lead to depression. Snuggling under the blankets with a cup of cocoa/tea/coffee is wonderful, so can connecting with your favorite people and having some laughs. Virtual counts too!
6. Engage in a few of your favorite hobbies or discover new ones
Most of my hobbies are outdoor adventure types, and luckily I live in a climate that I can get outdoors all year round. However, I am indoors more of the time in the winter to warm up. I may do yoga, read books, spend time in warm coffee shops or write a little more. Sometimes I will take my dog to Lowe’s Home Improvement(it’s pet friendly) to walk around and do training when’s it’s freezing or raining!
7. Listen to music
In a 2016 study, researchers showed that listening to upbeat or cheery music significantly improved participant’s mood in both the short and long term. I must agree that music can be mood lifting, and so can dancing in the kitchen!
8. Essential Oils
I love the smell of good quality essential oils! Oils with citrus and orange can be uplifting when mood is feeling low and you need more energy. Our olfactory system is very powerful, I dab a few drops on my wrists and chest or use a diffuser.
9. Allow space for rest
Fatigue is something I commonly hear of frequently and it may be more than other winters due to navigating life in the pandemic. Allow yourself the extra rest you need during this time. Trees and nature are so good at demonstrating this for us- resting in the winter and blooming in the spring.
With all this said, if you are struggling, reach out for support from a qualified, licensed therapist or see your doctor. Being able to to catch it in the beginning can be helpful with getting back on track to feeling like yourself again.
Licensed counselor, outdoor enthusiast, yoga lover and passionate about wellness.