On The Winter Solstice, Let's Recognize Seasonal Affective Disorder
Today is the winter solstice — a day that marks not only the official start of winter, but is also the shortest day of the year. While December is a cheery month for some — fresh off of Thanksgiving celebrations, and preparing for Christmas and New Year's Eve, it can be a busy time — it's also the time of year when the most people experience SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. While I don't have it, I know several people that do, and I have witnessed what a difficult thing it can be to manage.
The science behind the disorder is fairly straightforward. Frank Van Riper in The Washington Post says the disorder is "a biochemical imbalance in the body's hypothalamus gland that is caused by a shortening of daylight and a lack of sunshine...[it] is marked by tension, irritability, a desire to oversleep — even a loss in libido." These warning signs might be subtle, but it's worth examining yourself, especially if you're prone to depression or anxiety. If you've not been feeling yourself, have had difficulty sleeping, or have not wanted sex as much as you usually do, you might be affected by the lack of light, and it's worth talking to your doctor about it to find out more. The seasonal patterns of sunlight are unavoidable, but luckily, suffering isn't.
While people certainly don't only experience SAD during the solstice, the winter solstice serves as an important marker in the calendar for those counting down the days until the sunlight increases and their symptoms improve.
Cameron Macphail, writing in The Telegraph, notes that "The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, leading up to the summer solstice in June" — meaning that, instead of viewing the solstice as the ultimate low point of our sun-deprived days, it could also be celebrated as the beginning of relief; after months of increasing darkness, we've finally reached the tipping point and life will start getting lighter again. YAY!
It makes sense that the winter solstice was once considered an important holiday, celebrated with huge festivals and feasts in ancient societies like Rome. After months of increasing darkness, the day symbolized hope. From here on out, the days will get longer, the dark nights shorter, and our bodies will once again be exposed to the much needed vitamins the sun provides us with.
But while that's all well and good for planning the future, what can we do if we're feeling the affects of SAD now? If the winter solstice has highlighted the fact that you're feeling the serious lack of sunlight, and it's starting to affect your day- to-day life, check out the nine tips below.
1. Talk To A Professional
Sometimes, going to see a doctor about any problems you're having can be nerve-wracking, especially if it's one that's more emotional than obviously physical. But if you feel yourself getting sluggish or sad as the days get shorter, it's really important to touch base with a medical practitioner about SAD if you can. They might have some helpful suggestions on how to manage the condition, or prescribe you medication, and they'll want to keep an eye on you.
There are also lots of resources online which can help you get more information about the condition, so reading about SAD might help prepare you for asking for help. Use the solstice as motivation to promise yourself that you will help yourself feel better these next few dark months.
2. Invest In A SAD Lamp
Your doctor might suggest this to you as well, but even if they don't, investing in a SAD lamp can really help you manage SAD in the winter months. As there's so little daylight, a light box or SAD lamp makes you feel as though you're getting more sun than you are, which can really help your mood. And yes, they really do work — according to a study conducted at Columbia University, of the "100 SAD patients who used a 10,000 lux system with UV-filtered light diffusion and angular tilt, for 30 minutes each day, about 3/4 showed major improvement of depressive symptoms."
3. Go Outside As Much As Possible
You might not feel like going outside, but exposing yourself to as much daylight as possible is really beneficial when you're feeling the affects of SAD. According to the website of the National Health Service (UK), folks struggling with SAD should "try to get as much natural sunlight as possible – even a brief lunchtime walk can be beneficial."
Again, you might not feel like socializing — according to the National Institute of Mental Health, a decreased interest in socializing is often a key sign of SAD. But if seeing friends usually lifts your spirits, make sure to prioritize setting up some low-pressure social situations. Don't do anything that's going to cause you anxiety or make you feel uncomfortable, of course, but if you can make it to Starbucks to meet a friend, or get dinner out somewhere, it may help. My friends that have SAD often feel really good about the distraction of being somewhere different, and interacting with real human beings.
If SAD affects you badly, you likely won't feel like doing any exercise. Hell, you may not feel like getting out of bed. But exercise, and in particular cardio, can really help you feel better. As Today noted, "there's evidence physical activity—especially aerobic exercise—not only boosts your brain's levels of serotonin but also keeps those levels elevated for hours after your workout." So get moving to get those endorphins to your brain as soon as possible.
6. Try To Keep Regular Hours
One side effect of SAD is that it often makes the prospect of sleeping even more attractive than usual — according to the Mayo Clinic's website, oversleeping is a very common sign of SAD. But trying to maintain regular hours can help with your energy levels — and trying to wake up early when you can can help insure that you see as many hours of daylight as possible.
7. Make Sure You're Getting Your Nutrients
When you have SAD, you may be more likely to crave less nutrient-dense foods. As The Royal College of Psychiatrists website notes, "You may crave chocolate and high carbohydrate foods, such as white bread or sugary foods." While this is obviously not the end of the world, foods with less nutrients can lead you to have even less energy — so you may want to pay attention and make sure that you're getting some fresh fruits and veggies in your diet.
8. Know That You're Not Alone
According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists, "3 people in every 100 have significant winter depressions." Chances are that you have friends and family members who are being affected in the same way, so you don't have to feel alone. Remember, the winter solstice marks the end of the darkening days, and the gradual move towards spring. No matter how it feels now, know that things won't stay this way forever.
Images: Giphy (9)