When the sun goes down earlier and the temperature drops, it feels natural to start “hibernating”. Does hunkering down on the couch under a blanket to read or binge watch tv for hours on end sound familiar? Our eating habits also turn toward starchy and sugary options--and those holiday treat traditions don’t help. So what do you do when these behaviors begin to impact your daily life?
What is it?
What was formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder is now called Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. It’s a “specifier” within the Depressive Disorders category (specifiers allow the diagnosing clinician to clarify particular characteristics of a disorder). What does that mean?
It means that a person can experience symptoms that are commonly associated with depression that align with certain seasons, usually fall and winter. The symptoms have a pattern of emerging at the beginning of cooler, darker seasons, and they recede with the return of warmer, sunnier weather. Some people can experience seasonal depression during spring or summer months.
- Depressive episodes with a seasonal pattern are often characterized by the following symptoms:
- Lower than usual energy.
- Hypersomnia (excessive sleep).
- Increased craving for starchy and sugary foods.
- Weight gain.
How can you combat Depressive Disorders with Seasonal Patterns? Here are some helpful suggestions.
Light therapy boxes are often used to treat seasonal depressive episodes. They emit a light that is similar to the sun, and it’s recommended that the user sits in front of it for about 30 minutes. Consider the following when purchasing a light box:
- Research! Make sure that the light won’t damage your eyes or skin.
- Check to see that it filters out UV light to protect your eyes.
- Talk to your doctor. It’s best to check in with your physician about the most effective products for your experience, as well as their recommended exposure time for you.
With the sun rising later and later in the winter months, it can become extremely challenging to wake on time naturally--or with any sort of enthusiasm. Dawn simulators:
- Are alarm clocks that use full spectrum light instead of sound to gently wake you.
- Use light that brightens gradually and can be set to take 30 minutes to a couple hours to fully brighten before your wake time.
- Mimic a natural sunrise, and help you awaken in those darker hours of winter.
As always, it’s so crucial to not just workout in the summer but to continue your routine through colder months. To stay active, healthy and happy:
- Do something to raise your heart rate and make you break a sweat for at least 30 minutes each day. Walk, swim, jog, box, play sports, anything! Just move.
- Spend time outside. Yes, I know it’s cold and it’s probably raining or even snowing*! I know the weather sucks, but push through, the fresh air is great for you and you’ll feel great.
- Also, you probably won’t melt so bundle up, be safe, and have fun moving your body!
Dehydration can have a slew of adverse effects on not only your body, but your brain too. Many studies are emerging highlighting the role hydration plays in mental health.
- Proper hydration has been linked with better mood and improved alertness. It’s vital as an aid for every bodily function.
- Staying hydrated can help you feel awake, focused, energized, and can curb cravings for starchy, sugary foods.
- In winter, it’s easy to forget to grab our water bottles before leaving the house. The summer heat serves as a natural reminder but hydrating is just as important when it’s cold--even when you aren’t breaking a sweat.
- Aim to consume anywhere from 88 to 128 ounces of water daily, depending on your biological sex and how much water you consume from other sources like fruits, vegetables, herbal tea, and low-sodium soup broth.
Establish an Active Routine
It’s so tempting to flop on the couch after a long day and commuting home in the dark. Do your best to stay off the couch for as long as possible and keep moving through the evening. Motivate yourself to:
- Make a healthy dinner, do some cleaning, go for an evening stroll, and save couch time for the very end of your night.
- Keep moving throughout your day, getting up at least once every hour to stretch your limbs and your back.
You know the drill here.
- Welcome fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins while enjoying simple carbohydrates (baked goods, cereals, sugar, white bread/pasta, soda, candy, etc) sparsely and in small amounts.
- Simple carbohydrates zap you of energy and can have a serious impact on your mood.
Consult with your primary care physician about taking supplements, such as Vitamin D, to assist with symptoms of seasonal depressive episodes.
- Remember that vitamins and other supplements should be taken as carefully as other medication.
- Please talk with your physician before starting any supplement regimen, and research the manufacturer thoroughly, as they are not closely regulated like other medication manufacturers.
Processing and tracking your symptoms of seasonal depressive episodes throughout the season can be very helpful in better understanding yourself and your needs. These symptoms can make relationships, jobs, and general daily living more difficult to maintain and manage. It can be helpful to work through these new challenges in regular therapy sessions.
Seasonal depressive episodes are very real and can impact your life in significant ways, especially for folks here in the gloomy Pacific Northwest. Take a moment to reflect on past seasons and whether the symptoms of seasonal depressive episode resonate with your experience. If so, please reach out to a licensed mental health professional soon. There’s plenty of hope for you to stay healthy and energized through the darkest months!
*Advances in clothing technology has resulted in some fantastic options for attractive, lightweight, thermal clothing to keep you warm in winter. What’s more is there are options that are possible for most every budget!