Photo by Alex on Unsplash

In episode 16 of the Messy Middle Road Trip podcast, we talked with Heather Gersten Perry from Lite Rock 105 in Providence, RI about her 30-year career on the radio. This blog post has nothing to do with that conversation, but it was awesome, and you should really check it out.  Now on to the blog post…

The weather finally turned really cold here in New England (below zero cold). I don’t like the cold and bad weather; which is unfortunate because I live in the northeast and it turns me into a hermit. Like many women, the winter blues appear right around the end of Daylight Saving Time and won’t leave until the end of March. Freezing cold weather makes it worse. During the winter, I’m tired, irritable, anxious, and hungry with poor concentration and low energy. In short, I’m a mess.

I’m also not alone. Many people struggle with physical and emotional health during the winter. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health 9% of New Englanders suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (compared to just 1% of Floridians). For some, it’s just the winter blues, but for other’s, it’s severe depression that requires professional help. Fortunately, I don’t need professional intervention (for this issue), but I do I need something, so here is my plan to beat the winter blues. But first…

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is seasonally caused depression which results from shorter days and less sunlight. Shorter winter days decreases the amount of feel-good serotonin in our brains and increases the amount of sleep-inducing melatonin leaving us groggy and grouchy.   

The increase in melatonin affects our circadian rhythm which regulates pretty much everything in our bodies. It determines when and how long we sleep, when and how much we eat, and how we feel both physically and mentally. If our circadian rhythm (or biological clock) is out of whack things go haywire.

Some signs of SAD (also from the Mayo Clinic):

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness or low energy

Wow, Mayo Clinic, SAD sounds terrible! How do you fix it?

All the Scandinavians are doing it.

Countries with long periods of seasonal darkness such as Norway and Sweden are experts on SAD. These countries have run countless studies to 1) prove SAD actually exists and 2) find treatments.

Light therapy has been a standard treatment for SAD since the 1980s (and you know, if it comes from the 80s it must be good). The idea is to replace sunshine with a bright 10,000 lux artificial light for 20-60 minutes each morning. Intrigued, I thought I’d give it a try and purchased my own 10,000 lux light box.

The light is BRIGHT (think walking into a convenience store at night or walking out of a bar at midday – not that I’ve ever done that before).  Each morning, I wake up early, get a cup of coffee, plug in my light and work on my morning pages or today’s To Do list. The light doesn’t give off much heat, but I’m usually sweating by the end of the session. Like everything, the light comes with a set of warnings. Don’t look directly at the light, don’t sit too close to the light, and don’t sit too long in the light. According to manufacturers, you will ruin your eyesight (looking into the light or sitting too close) or become agitated or restless (sitting too long)  Also, it might cause sleeplessness, so only use it in the morning.

Does it work? Hard to say. When I use it, I feel better with more energy and a better attitude. Of course, that could be all in my head. But who cares if it works, right? The light was particularly useful over the past few weeks when temperatures dropped below zero (I think 1 million below is about right). 

Besides light therapy, I’m imitating my Scandinavian friends in other ways by embracing winter. No seriously, I am. It’s a perfect opportunity to put my mindfulness practice to work and separate my feelings about winter from the actual conditions outside. I now get outside whenever possible, dressed in a lot of layers and a face mask that makes me look like a bank robber.

Also, because I work from home, getting out of the house is a priority. I’ve joined a co-working office and have my own desk in a funky space nearby. It’s just like the old days of working in an office, except less annoying.

Other Treatments

First, I’m not a doctor. So, if you’re struggling this winter, please make an appointment with a medical professional. Thank you.

Otherwise, experts recommend several options for people suffering from SAD. In the most serious cases a doctor might prescribe an antidepressant, but again that’s between you and your doc. Other recommendations include Psychotherapy and increased Vitamin D intake.

Remember, you don’t have to suffer through the winter. It’s not all in your head, so get some help and feel better now. Spring is still 2 1/2 months away.

Some people don’t believe SAD a thing. So, to provide you with all the information you need, here is an article from Scientific American discussing a recent study from the Center for Disease Control about SAD.

Do you like winter? If not, how do you cope?