No, you're not imagining it; the days are getting shorter, and for those of you who are sensitive to the changes in the seasons, Seasonal Affective Disorder may be on its way. And even though the holiday season is rapidly approaching, and the attendant twinkly lights and gift-giving are meant to raise your spirits, the early sunsets may be dampening your enthusiasm prematurely. Humans are sensitive to sunlight — because it prompts the production of vitamin D in our bodies, an essential ingredient for well-being and good mental health. That means that for those in the northern hemisphere, short winter days and grey sunless afternoons can equal depressive symptoms, even in the midst of Hanukkah candles, Christmas lights and New Year's Eve toasts. It's estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the population experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder, with incidences much higher in northern climates.
If that all sounds familiar, you may already be wondering what you can do to boost your mood this winter. Well, if you feel seasonal depression, you should definitely consult with your doctor. But there are a few steps you can take at home to raise your mood, too, aside from a prolonged vacation in the Caribbean (which for medical reasons I obviously endorse wholeheartedly). And luckily, most of them aren't inconvenient, expensive or embarrassing. (Though ditching your pumpkin spice latte for the season, which I'll explain in a minute, may make you a bit of a social pariah on Instagram).
Everybody experiences symptoms differently, but you'll likely be particularly sensitive to seasonal mood changes if you already experience depression, or if you're a transplant from a warmer, sunnier part of the world. So if the gradual earlier sunsets are worrying you, start taking these nine steps now to ensure you're cheerful this winter.
1. Exercise More
I know, I know. Outside is cold and wet and you just want to stay snuggled in bed, where it is neither of those things. But the relationship between exercise and mood is a seriously scientifically solid one — so if you're feeling the winter blues but can't bear the thought of leaving the house, try cranking up the music and having an indoor dance party, or adopting a morning routine of push-ups and jogging in place in your bedroom for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. It should help boost your sense of positivity.
2. Get A SAD Lamp – Or Just A 300 Watt Bulb
Many psychology professionals recommended that folks who experience the winter blues get a SAD lamp: a lamp that's been specifically designed to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder. These can help a great deal, though you need to follow the instructions precisely. But if you don't want to drop the cash on a lamp specifically designed for SAD sufferers, sitting three feet away from a 300 watt light bulb for twenty minutes is supposed to provide a similar boost of warm, natural-feeling light.
3. Trade Coffee For Herbal Or Green Teas
You may rely on your morning caffeine boost to help you get perky, but in the winter, it could be dampening your mood. Caffeine consumption has actively been linked to the depletion of serotonin, the brain chemical most necessary for the alleviation of depression. A study of 2,000 people in Finland, one of the countries that experiences a severe sunlight deficit in winter, indicates that black, green or herbal teas may be a good way forward instead — they can provide a boost without leading to any subsequent crash. So, sacrilege though it may be, it might be wise to step away from the pumpkin spice lattes.
4. Get Vitamin D From Food
Though it's good to expose yourself to as much sunshine as possible in the winter in order to snag some vitamin D, you don't have to be dependent entirely on the sun for the vitamin. You can also stock up on the vital vitamin through diet — and it's probably a good idea to have some vitamin D essentials in your cupboard during particularly gloomy patches of the year. Cheese, egg yolks and orange juice are natural vitamin D boosters, while other products like cereals can often have added vitamin D — so make sure to read your labels carefully. Bonus: Now you can finally justify buying that cheese board you've always wanted.
5. Pay Attention To Your Body Temperature
It's a peculiar psychological aspect of humans that our bodies react emotionally to certain stimuli. A study by the University of Toronto found that awareness of the coldness of our bodies — i.e., if we start to feel colder than normal — is a good indicator that we need some social interaction and general mood-boosting. Feeling cold is tied to low mood. So don't shrug off a sense of chilliness; make sure you tend to it immediately.
6. Clean Your House
It turns out that enduring a damp, sodden autumn and winter isn't just bad for your clothing; if that seasonal dampness manages to invade your home, it may dampen your mood, too. A 2007 study by Brown University made a pretty persuasive link between living in a damp, moldy home or work environment and experiencing depression. It looks like breathing in mold can actually impede the emotional capabilities of your brain. It can also beat down your immune system and basically make life miserable. So battle that mold with every fiber of your being. (Note: if you have pets, make sure you use pet-safe mold cleaners — otherwise you'll be dealing with a sick and anxious animal, which will certainly make your mood worse.)
7. Get Regular Sleep
The temptation to log more hours of sleep during sun-deprived parts of the year is an understandable impulse. It's dark, it's cold, and you just want to snuggle under the blankets. But resist the urge: maintaining regular and consistent sleeping habits is, it turns out, a very good way of regulating mood, too. Sudden napping or extended periods in bed from illness often can often lead to flares of depression (depressive sufferers will know this one from experience). So during the darker months, make sure you get sufficient sleep and have regular bed and wake-up times; your body needs to stick to a circadian rhythm, particularly now that it can't be "woken up" by the sun.
8.Omega-3 Fatty Acids Are Your Friend
Christmas and Thanksgiving may not seem like a particularly fish-heavy time of year — now, after all, is the period when people begin to break out the turkeys, hams, giant slabs of beef and piles of carbs. However, it's pretty crucial that those of us prone to low mood in the dim months keep oily fish in our diets the whole year round. The high levels of omega-3 fatty acids (one of the "good" fats) in fish are likely very good for mood boosting. Mackerel, sardines and salmon are good sources of fatty acid, and getting it is especially important because the human body can't produce omega-3s on its own. Nab yourself some winter warming fish recipes and try to eat some two times a week.
9. Get Out Into The Winter World
You could be forgiven for thinking this is just me being sadistic, but I swear it's true: going outside, properly wrapped up, and taking a long walk is supposed to help with winter depressive symptoms — particularly if you can manage to do it in a natural area or with friends or family. The combination of exercise, fresh air and a stress-free environments without too many distractions seems to help seasonal depression immensely. Throw in a snowball fight and you may as well be set for life. So wrap up warmly and skip checking your phone for the duration of the walk, and you may find your mood lightening, even as the sky stays dark.
Images: Rocksana Rocksana/Unsplash; Giphy (9)