Welcome to winter, where comfort food cravings run high and moods run dangerously low. If your happiness plummets with the temperatures around this time of year, you might be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder, affectionately known as SAD.
“SAD is a condition that occurs when there is not enough light around, which usually happens from about October through March,” says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and author of Winter Blues ($14, amazon.com). Symptoms can include difficulty waking up in the darker mornings, low energy levels, craving every indulgent food you can think of, and, well, feeling really sad.
While SAD is most likely to affect anyone living in darker climates (think farther away from the equator), women are more vulnerable to falling into the seasonal funk than men. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about the darker, colder days, but, according to Rosenthal, there are plenty of ways to abate and even overcome the troubling symptoms of SAD. Scroll down for his top five tips for climbing out of the winter doldrums.
There’s a reason why exercise always seems to be a go-to tip for improving your mood. It works. “Regular exercise can help relieve stress and people who are under stress are more likely to deal with SAD,” says Rosenthal. “Exercise is excellent for managing mental health issues of all kinds.” He suggests choosing a workout that you love and will stick with and exercising outside in the light as much as possible.
Speaking of stress, SAD can cause a reduced ability to manage it, which can push people into a deeper depression. Rosenthal recommends doing anything you can to minimize your stress levels during the winter, even if it means not taking on work projects that might have a lot of pressure attached to them. If taking on a lighter workload is not an option, he suggests meditation, which helped him manage his own personal SAD symptoms. “Mindfulness requires us to slow down and center ourselves, allowing us to better manage the many obstacles and tasks in front of us,” he says.
SAD is triggered by too little exposure to light, which is common in the winter when the days become shorter. “Basically, light therapy involves bringing more light into your environment, which you can do by treating yourself to a light box,” says Rosenthal, who suggests a light with a surface area of at least one square foot that emits white light, not blue light, this one.
It sounds ridiculous, but literally doing the opposite of what your mind is telling you to do when you’re in a depressed state can do wonders for your SAD. “You may feel like lying under the covers until ten o’clock in the morning. Do the opposite and get outside at seven o’clock for some light exercise,” says Rosenthal. “Ask yourself what the real reason you think you can’t do something is and then give it a try anyway.” The same applies to your diet. “SAD causes cravings for high impact carbs like sweets and starches. Conquer those and choose nutrient-dense foods that are more satisfying and keep your sugar levels even.”
See a Doctor
SAD can affect individuals at different severities. “For every one person experiencing full blown SAD, there are three who experience the winter blues, which is a milder form of the depression,” says Rosenthal. But he emphasizes that SAD is a very real condition and should not be treated lightly if, after many attempts at lifting your mood, symptoms persist. “You should absolutely see a doctor and discuss an anti-depressant regime if you continue to struggle with symptoms. There is no shame in that,” he says.