How might you prevent seasonal affective disorders like cabin fever, winter blues, or ‘the blahs’?
Some of us in northern climates approach winter with a growing sense of dread as the days get shorter, the weather gets colder, and sooner or later many of us succumb to the "winter blues." Severe and chronic seasonal depression is a serious issue and should be treated by a medical professional. However, for many of us, winter tends to bring on lesser seasonal affective disorders along the line of "cabin fever" or "the blahs." There are, however, ways to weather winter, including seasonal light solutions and other positive habits that help fend off stress and sadness.
The winter blues aren't just a folksy saying—there are physiological (and psychological) reactions to how much sunlight we soak up on a daily basis. In the northern hemisphere, the tilt of the Earth means we get fewer winter daylight hours (and less direct sunlight) the further north we live. For example, around the Winter Solstice, Anchorage, Alaska, gets less than five hours of daylight, the northernmost part of Minnesota gets eight, while Miami, Florida, gets more than ten hours of sunshine each day. Shorter days mean less sunlight, which can mess with our biological clocks and circadian rhythms and bring about changes in our bodies' sleep schedules, our eating habits, and our moods.
That's why some people notice that during winter months they might sleep more, have less energy and interest in their usual activities, feel more irritable or moody, and may even want to eat more (especially foods heavy in carbohydrates). There are doctor-prescribed light therapies that include bright light boxes or dawn simulators, but if your symptoms are not that severe, there are other things you can do on a daily basis to fight off the blues or blahs.
Let the light in to fight seasonal affective disorder
- Throw open the shutters. Seasonal light solutions can be as simple as opening up the blinds and curtains and removing things (like tree branches) that block sun-facing windows.
- Sit in the sunlight. Move your desk or kitchen table into an area that's getting more sunshine. Take some time during the day to sit near a bright window and read or work. Mornings are a good time to grab some extra sunlight exposure, as it can both help keep your biological clock set right and raise your spirits for the rest of the day.
Get up and get out to get some sun
- Go Outside. Sure, it might be colder out, but bundle up and try to get out more during the daylight hours. Make a daily walk part of your winter routine—even on a cloudy day, your body is still soaking up sunshine. When an unseasonably warm winter day comes along, consider eating lunch outdoors or taking a family walk.
- Take time to relax. Don't push yourself too hard—take a little time each winter day to chill out, so to speak.
- Be social. When you're feeling blue or cranky, sometimes the last thing you want is to be around other people, but sometimes that's also exactly what you need. And when you are a good neighbor at work, the kindness and respect will be returned.
- Head for the sun. If you're planning a winter vacation, consider going somewhere warm and sunny to give yourself a brief mid-winter recharge. And if you’re enrolled in Medicare, supplemental insurance may provide additional support for health care expenses while you’re traveling.
Take care of your mind and body during winter
- Get enough sleep. While sleeping all day or finding it increasingly hard to get out of bed can be a sign of more severe depression, make sure you're getting a normal and healthy amount of rest each night. Lack of sleep can raise stress levels.
- Eat right. Follow healthy eating tips; and no matter how much your winter body might crave them, try to cut down on foods heavy in fats, sugars, and carbs. Instead try to eat foods rich in nutrients and vitamins, including fish, nuts, and vegetables high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Exercise regularly. Not just because you want to get a head start on your summer beach body, but because it helps reduce stress and anxiety and strengthens your body's physical and mental system.
If your winter blues get worse and you feel you might be experiencing continuing depression, seek help from a medical professional. If, however, you feel like your mood and attitude just need a little boost during the cold, dark winter months, follow these tips to fight off the blahs and get as much happiness and fun out of winter as you do the other, warmer seasons.