This time of year in the Northeast we hear a lot about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the ‘winter blues’. Many people find the fall and winter months difficult because they feel they have less energy and are more prone to a depressed mood. While no real trigger for SAD can be defined, the general consensus is the decreased sunlight during this time of year disrupts the body’s biological clock, which throws off levels of two brain chemicals: serotonin and melatonin.
A drop in serotonin caused by reduced sunlight can contribute to disturbances in mood, particularly depressed mood. This same reduction in sunlight can also cause disruption of melatonin, which has an impact on both sleep patterns and mood. In addition, decreased sleep can also affect mood negatively.
Some things you can do to keep yourself on track and out of a SAD space are:
Keep moving—exercise is one of the best remedies for changes in mood, whether you’re struggling depression or anxiety. It releases ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals, like endorphins that can ease feelings of sadness or depression. Exercise also reduces certain chemicals in your immune system that may worsen a depressed mood. Increasing your body temperature actually has a calming effect, which can elevate mood, as well as reducing feelings of anxiety.
Meditate—the effects of meditation on depression and anxiety are well researched. Not only does meditation have a positive impact on brain chemistry, much like exercise, it can also help you to gain perspective on stressful situations, as well as reduce the day-to-day stressors that may be contributing to your changes in mood.
Many people shy away from meditation because they believe it’s difficult or comes with complicated rituals, like sitting on a cushion, chanting or being in a ‘sacred space’. In fact, meditation is as simple as sitting still and concentrating on your breathing. When your thoughts begin to wander—which they will—simply bring your attention back to your breath. Practiced just 20 minutes a day, this simple, ancient exercise can help you get past the winter blues.
Full spectrum light bulbs—changing the lightbulbs in your house and your workspace to full-spectrum bulbs, which mimic sunlight, can have an enormous impact on the way you feel. Full-spectrum light bulbs are readily available and generally cost no more than regular light bulbs. While you may not want to change every single bulb in your house or apartment, switching out the bulbs in the rooms where you spend the most time can be helpful.
Light box—a lightbox is a special light that sits on a desk or countertop. It contains bulbs that, much like full-spectrum light bulbs, mimic sunlight. A lightbox is much more concentrated, however. It can be used in two ways: either sitting in front of it for an hour or so a day during the winter months, or, if you work in an office or workspace that has fluorescent lights, you can just sit it on your desk all day. By the way, you can also get full-spectrum light bulbs that work in fluorescent fixtures!
Put your phone down at night—keeping in mind that changes in light play a role in mood and sleep disturbance, as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s important to know that the body responds to different kinds of light in different ways. Light on the ‘red’ spectrum wakes us up. Light on the ‘blue’ spectrum keeps us more level.
Your smart phone screen emits light on the ‘red’ spectrum, which your body mistakenly recognizes as sunlight. If you’re in the habit of looking at your phone in the middle of the night, you’re actually contributing to your sleep disturbance because you’re inadvertently ‘waking yourself up’. Learning to put your phone down after a certain time at night can help diminish the impact that the change in seasons may be having on your sleep patterns.
Vitamin D3—another consequence of changes in the intensity of sunlight, especially in the Northeast and more northern regions of the country, is that lower levels of light can mean lower levels of Vitamin D3 production in the body. Research has linked Vitamin D3 deficiency to depressed mood. The combination of diminished sunlight and Vitamin D3 deficiency can worsen the symptoms of depression we associate with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Evidence suggests Vitamin D3 supplements and sun exposure during the winter months can positively impact mood, taking Vitamin D3 deficiency into consideration as a factor in seasonal mood disturbance may be helpful.
While there’s no way to completely control the impact that the change of season may have on your mood and sleep patterns, being proactive can help you to diminish the affects that changes in sunlight may be having on you and lead you to a happier, healthier space.