If there is one thing anyone knows about me… it’s that I hate the cold. I hate winter. And I hate living in the Northeast.
The summers are way too short. The winters are way too long. And dark. And cold.
I can tolerate the fall and winter until after the holidays. But by the end of January, I begin to notice a change in myself… increased feelings of irritability; sadness; loneliness; increased anxiety (and I don’t usually have an anxiety problem); persistent headaches; feeling hopeless; a lack of enjoyment in my work and favorite activities; and just leaving the house in general.
It doesn’t take an MD to classify these symptoms as clinical signs of depression…
By the time February rolls around, I feel like I have completely lost sight of who I am.
If it wasn’t warm by March (which it usually isn’t…), I’m absolutely miserable.
I decided to share this blog today, as I thought this week was appropriate. It’s March 23rd, and we just had our FOURTH Nor’easter in a row. Although the storm didn’t end up amounting to much in terms of total snowfall and hazardous conditions, the fact is we are seeing temperatures 20 degrees below the average for this time of year, and it just won’t. stop. snowing…
So, aside from putting my house up for sale, needless to say I’m at my wit’s end.
Is It SAD, or Am I Just… Sad?
When I DO leave the house and join the world, or spend time with family and friends, most people immediately know that something about me is… off. They ask me what’s wrong, and I never know what to say… The weather? I feel so lame blaming my feelings or lack of interest in anything on the weather. There are people that deal with REAL depression and other more serious issues. So it always seems so trivial.
I usually just shrug it off and say that I’m just overtired. I know that if I were to complain to them about the weather and how much I hate it, other than the typical eye roll, I would get comments like, “Well, you can’t control the weather, so deal with it. It’s winter.”
I know full well what season it is. That doesn’t mean I have to like it…
But every year, it gets worse and worse… After speaking with a professional therapist and doing my own research, I have discovered that seasonal depression, or what is medically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is actually a REAL thing, and more people suffer with it than I thought.
This was a revelation. I no longer felt like I was crazy, or that something was wrong with me, or that I annoy everyone around me.
The SAD Facts
In some cases, SAD can become more serious than just “the winter blues”. Here are some interesting facts about SAD that you probably didn’t know (I know I didn’t…)
- Approximately 15.8 million people in the U.S. suffer with SAD every year.
- Studies have shown that SAD affects more people in the Northeast than anywhere else in the nation.
- Although SAD can affect anyone, four times more women suffer with it than men.
- People with Vitamin D deficiencies are more likely to suffer with SAD.
- People with clinical depression are at a higher risk for SAD.
So, what exactly causes SAD? Some of the studies referenced above have concluded that it is caused by the reduced hours of sunlight. Studies have shown that natural sunlight stimulates the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for mood swings and sleep functions.
For people with SAD, the lack of sunlight prevents this part of the brain from functioning as it should, which is why they commonly experience sharper mood swings, disrupted sleep patterns, and a lack of melatonin and/ or serotonin.
What Can You Do About It?
As someone who suffers with SAD every year, I’ve been trying different natural coping mechanisms to see what helps the most.
Here are some strategies that I have learned that can and do help manage SAD symptoms:
1. Light Therapy – Because SAD is caused by a lack of natural sunlight, using light therapy can help. In fact, some SAD sufferers swear by this method. Light therapy involves exposing yourself to light emitted by a light box for approximately 15 to 30 minutes per day. Some light boxes are prescribed by a medical professional, but they mostly can be found online.
No, using a light box isn’t the same thing as lying on the beach and soaking up the sun, but it can help alleviate SAD symptoms.
I admit that I haven’t tried light therapy yet, but it’s on my list.
2. Exercise – This is one of the only things that has helped me with SAD. Exercise has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, improve moods, elevate mental sharpness and focus, and also boost energy levels.
One recommendation is to take up a winter or indoor hobby. For me, going to my dance studio has become a crucial outlet. It gets me up and out of the house. It puts me in a positive and encourage social environment. And it’s exercise that I actually enjoy. It’s a win all around. Whenever I leave, I always feel better.
On the days when the studio is closed due to severe weather, I try to maintain my exercise routine at home. For example, I will work on flexibility and stretching in front of the TV, use the pole in my home or even jump on the elliptical machine in my makeshift gym in the basement.
Unfortunately, I will admit that exercise only alleviates SAD symptoms temporarily. However, without making the effort to exercise on a daily basis, I probably would feel much worse…
3. Eat Healthy – Believe it or not, what you eat—and don’t eat—can impact SAD symptoms. In fact, many studies have shown that eating a healthy source of Omega-3 fatty acids can drastically reduce SAD symptoms. This is because higher omega-3 levels help the brain to produce serotonin, and allow it to pass through cell membranes. Lower serotonin levels have been linked to clinical depression, and are also linked to suicidal thoughts.
The most common sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are fish. If you don’t eat fish, then here are some foods that are also high in Omega-3s:
- Brussel sprouts
Additionally, a moderate-carb diet can help alleviate SAD symptoms. But make sure you are consuming the right carbs. After all, not all carbs are created equal. For example, chips, white bread, and white pasta make a delicious meal or snack to enjoy on a snowy afternoon or evening when you are stuck inside with Netflix. Although carbohydrates have been shown to increase serotonin production, consume them in moderation. A high-carb diet can lead to weight gain.
If you are in the mood for a snack, then stick to popcorn, wheat bread, pita chips or wheat crackers. Eating healthier carbs, such as lentils, brown rice, and sweet potatoes are also better options.
4. Vitamin D Boost – As we mentioned above, many people who suffer with SAD also have a Vitamin D deficiency. We get Vitamin D naturally from sunlight. In fact, spending just 10 minutes a day in the afternoon sun can provide up to 10,000 units of Vitamin D.
However, when the Earth is farther away from the sun and the days are shorter during the winter, you might have to get your Vitamin D from another source. I personally take Vitamin D supplements. This was actually recommended to me by my doctor when I told her about how I often feel very depressed during the winter.
Although I haven’t been as good about taking Vitamin D as I should be, it can definitely help—no prescription or other medication needed.
5. Find a Distraction – A common symptom of SAD is social withdrawal. If you make an effort to surround yourself with family or friends and positivity, and doing something you enjoy, this can help you get your mind off how ugly, gray, dark and cold it is outside.
6. Travel – Traveling to a warmer client, either during the holidays, February school vacation or “Spring Break” can help reduce SAD, even if only temporary.
Of course, not everyone has the time or the budget to travel every winter. But if you can manage it, taking a break from the constant cold and gray can do wonders for your mood and mindset.
7. Try To Stay Positive – This is the hardest one for me… When I am feeling down or depressed, and I don’t want to do anything, it can be incredibly difficult to feel positive. And when it’s dark and cold ALL the time, the negativity that often comes with this environment often lasts throughout the day.
However, making a valiant effort to focus on the positive things throughout the day—even the little things—can make a huge difference. For me, it’s writing. You can also practice Yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises and many others.
Not only can a healthy mindset help combat SAD, but it can also transform how you look at and experience life. A healthy and happy mindset can lead to feelings of gratefulness and happiness, and help you focus on each moment in your life.
This one takes work, but you can get there…
8. Reach Out for Medical Attention – I don’t have a medical expertise bone in my body. In fact, I get woozy when I see a drop of blood from a cut… This article is NOT to serve as a medical guide for dealing with clinical depression; it is merely to bring awareness to SAD, and to help fellow SAD sufferers.
So, if you are experiencing severe depression, overusing drugs and/ or alcohol, or have thoughts of suicide, PLEASE reach out for professional help. And remember that you aren’t alone. No matter what.
If You Are SAD, You Aren’t Alone..
Finally, if there is anything that I have taken away from being a yearly SAD sufferer, it’s that I am not alone. I have recently met a lot of women in my age group who suffer with SAD just as bad—if not worse—than I do. Surrounding myself with them and recognizing and acknowledging the issue for what it is has made all the difference.
As a business owner, it’s very important for me to be on my game, and as productive as possible every day—even during the winter. And between January and March, I really struggle with this. Although I haven’t gotten my own treatment for SAD down to a T, after doing research and trying some of the methods myself, I have noticed some difference in my feelings. All in all, you have to find what works best for you, your schedule, and your budget.