5 Strategies for Preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the Winter Blues

Winter is not my favorite time of year. The frosty temperatures and short days can make anyone (read: me) want to curl up under a huge blanket and hibernate until the warmth returns.

For those who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), winter can be particularly challenging. Those with the “Winter Blues” tend to become withdrawn, have low energy, and feel generally sad or irritable. They  also tend to engage in habits that actually reinforce their low mood as well, such as overeating and craving carbs (which leads to weight gain) and oversleeping.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
– Benjamin Franklin

While the Winter Blues usually clear up on their own once the spring rolls around, it can be fairly painful to manage that 3-5 month window while waiting for warm weather and longer days.

So what is the best way to combat the Winter Blues? Prevention.

And that means starting now while the trees are full of color and the temperatures are still warm enough for apple picking and pumpkin chunkin’ festivals.

So, here are our 5 Strategies for Preventing SAD and the Winter Blues:

1. Exercise 

I know, I know. Don’t quit on me already! I’ll keep this short and sweet. You don’t have to join a CrossFit gym or train for a marathon. You just have to do a little bit more than what you’re doing now (unless you’re the 2% that is already smashing it at the gym). Exercise releases all those feel-good hormones like serotonin, which is linked to our mood.

Take your dog for a slightly longer walk (trust me, he will enjoy it too!). Commit to doing a set up push-ups or crunches each day. Maybe even do a challenge (I personally love this one)! Or maybe even just commit to actually using that gym membership you’ve been paying for – just commit to twice a week. Even if it’s just to walk on the treadmill!

The point is, you don’t have to do morph into some fitness model, but you should do something.

2. Eat Clean

As we head towards the coldest part of winter, we’re also heading into the most gluttonous time of the year. The holidays are full of carbs and sweet deliciousness! But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Not only for our mid-sections, but also for our mental health.

Think of your brain like a car. If you give your car enough cheap fuel, over time it becomes less efficient and may eventually break down. Our bodies are no different. We can enjoy some sugary sweets and slices of pizza every now and then, but if that’s the primary fuels we’re relying on, we’re headed for a break down.

For more on how food affects our brains and mood, check out this Harvard blog post. 

Strive for the 80/20 rule. Treat yourself here and there. Go ahead and enjoy a slice of that sinfully decadent chocolate cake… 20% of the time.

The other 80% of the time, make clean, healthy choices. We know that processed sugars and carbs affect our mood and energy. So try eating unprocessed, lean foods (vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, chicken and seafood).

Click here for more information on food and mental health.

3. Get Some Sunlight 

There is a growing body of research that is finding a link between bright light, especially in the mornings, and improved mood. Our bodies take in sunlight (in the form of UV rays) and produce Vitamin D, which has been linked with a whole plethora of health benefits including our mental health. Unfortunately, it has been estimated that 70% of us are not getting enough Vitamin D!

I will be the fist to say this is easier said than done in the winter. When it’s cold, I don’t want to even think about being outside without being wrapped up in enough clothing to look like the Michelin Man. With all that clothing on, how do you get sunlight anyway?

If you’re like me, you thought, “Hmm, well maybe I’ll just sit in front of the window in the mornings with my face to the sun, sipping steamy coffee, and I’ll stay warm and toasty right from my comfy chair.” Spoiler alert: most glass windows block UV rays, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. Sorry!

If you’re completely against getting outside and spending some time in the sun during the chilly days coming up, there are a few other options.

Research suggests that artificial light may be just as beneficial. There are some really cool therapeutic grade light boxes on the market right now that you can use at your desk or in the kitchen while you’re cooking your (80% healthy!) meals. There is also an AMAZING light therapy alarm clock on the market that simulates a natural sunrise to kick start your day. This one is on my personal Christmas wish list this year!

Check out how Norway and Sweden are using light and mirrors to keep entire towns merry all winter!

Lastly, when all else fails, you can just as easily pick up some Vitamin D over the counter. Of course, always consult with your physician before taking anything and to determine how much you’ll need to see true benefit.

4. Pick up a new hobby

When we start feeling a little crappy, the tendency is to withdraw from other people and pleasurable activities. But this is the exact opposite of what we need, and only reinforces depression, poor mood and anxiety.

So, all we’re asking for is a little behavioral activation – that’s a fancy word therapists use to encourage people to get out and do more pleasurable activities that are rewarding for you. Doing things we enjoy releases powerful, feel-good hormones that stave off SAD and the Winter Blues.

And no, behavioral activation doesn’t have to mean you have to take up skiing or ice hockey this winter – although that would help embrace these chilly months ahead! It just means taking up something you’d enjoy doing. Think outside the box! What about taking up pottery, or glass blowing, or archery? The world is your oyster.

5. Plan a vacation!

Sometimes that weekly guitar lesson that you love isn’t enough. And most of us aren’t able to be Florida snow birds and head south for the winter months.

Planning a vacation somewhere warm to break up the winter can be the perfect solution. Plus, the excitement and anticipation around planning a trip good for the soul, too!

I often talk with my clients about our “buckets.” When we’re feeling healthy, nurtured, and supported, our buckets are full. As we get run down and overextended, the bucket starts to empty. If we go on too long, the bucket may run completely dry, which is where depression and exhaustion can rear its ugly head.

So take some time to fill up your buckets in preparation for this winter. And then make sure you’re doing things that pour into your bucket to keep it near full as the winter drags on.

What are some of your strategies for staying healthy through the winter? Comment below! 

“One of the most painful parts of losing someone to suicide is the realization that their pain and hopelessness was so heavy that they felt they could no longer carry the load. Even more heartbreaking is the belief that this load was theirs to carry alone.”

The official kickoff of Mental Illness Awareness Week was Monday. That morning, I came across this picture of strangers clinging tenaciously to a man who was trying to throw himself off a bridge. By Monday evening, a friend we care for deeply had shared that his struggle with Bipolar Disorder was becoming unbearable, and he was overwhelmed with thoughts of suicide. Just a few hours later that night, my family was reeling from the news that someone else we cared for died by suicide earlier in the day.

Each year, millions of Americans struggle under the burden of a mental health condition. To honor the widespread impact of both those who suffer personally, and those who are indirectly affected by mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sponsors Mental Illness Awareness Week. Their goal? To spread awareness about the importance of mental health and to speak out against stigma around mental illness.

One of the most painful parts of losing someone to suicide is the realization that their pain and hopelessness was so heavy that they felt they could no longer carry the load. Even more heartbreaking is the belief that this load was theirs to carry alone. Family members, friends, and colleagues are left wondering – “How could I not know? How could I not have seen it? What could I have done differently?”

Here’s the thing about depression and suicide – well, about mental illness in general… We don’t talk. We feel alone. We feel like no one can understand, or like we might be a burden to someone else if we share our pain. We feel ashamed or embarrassed. We feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own. That, my friends, is stigma.

A new TV series aired last week – A Million Little Things. The pilot episode begins with someone who died by suicide. The friends, in complete disbelief, are trying to make sense of why someone who seems (at least on the outside) to have it all together would take his own life. Then someone says:

“Maybe he just lost sight of the horizon? I was watching this documentary on JFK Junior. You remember when his plane went down?… Kennedy was a pilot and he was flying at night and the clouds came in. His instruments were telling him which way was up but he didn’t trust them. The truth was right in front of him and he couldn’t see it. And he lost site of the horizon and nose-dived. By the time he realized what was happening it was too late. He couldn’t pull up… That’s depression.”

At times we all lose our way. This life hits hard. It holds no punches. We all stumble and fall – repeatedly. And sometimes the weight of our suffering seems incredibly heavy and unjust.

But if we all struggle, why are some of us choosing to go at it alone?

Kevin Hines, the most well-known survivor of a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge has shared that he was waiting for just one person to reach out and say something to him. That if just one person had stopped to ask if he was alright, he would not have jumped. No one reached out to him, and in exchange, he didn’t reach out to anyone either.

The gut-wrenching part? As soon as Kevin Hines jumped he realized it was a mistake. Incredibly, he survived and now he spends his life sharing his story. But he’s not alone. There are many survivors who have shared their story and report regretting their decision as soon as they started. They are the lucky ones. They got to “pull up” in time.

So I want to say something to you. To my friends, colleagues, family, clients, and the strangers I have yet to meet. This is something I wish I could say to our family member who suffered quietly, alone, before taking his precious life. Something I have shared and will continue to share with a friend who fights the good fight and struggles under the weight of his depression. Hold on. Don’t quit. I promise, this too shall pass.

And I want to beg you to talk about it. Tell someone. Take a deep breath and muster up just a tiny bit of courage and strength and resilience, and say “I am in pain. I can’t see the horizon any longer. I don’t know how much longer I can hang on. Please help me before I make a decision I might regret.”

Be vulnerable. Be brave. In this world of heartbreak there are good people who would give their last breath to save just one soul. I see it every day buried under the mudslinging and narcissism and vanity. All you have to do is reach out. It does get better. Nothing – including pain – lasts forever. There are people who can catch you. There are people who will smile under the shared weight of your pain. And someday, when you’re feeling stronger, you can share in their weight too.

All you have to do is reach out.

You don’t have to feel alone. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you’re thinking about suicide.