Winterize Your Brain

As days get shorter and nights get longer in the northern hemisphere, seasonal affective disorder starts once again to rear its ugly head.  Feeling sad or depressed during times when the outside world is literally darker is a not uncommon experience.  According to research, the experience of laziness, avoidance, and even despair in the winter season may affect up to 5% of the US population, and seasonal depression can last for some people up to 40% of the year.

We should emphasize that seasonal affective disorder is a real problem, you can’t just “snap out of it”.  If you experience sadness almost every day during the colder seasons, or if you find yourself sleeping unusually long hours, or unusually short hours, or gaining or losing weight because of your response to seasonal changes, it can be helpful to seek professional help and support.  Medication may be indicated in severe cases.

To address winter depression without medication, several approaches have been found useful:

Light Therapy:  at its simplest level, light therapy means getting outside in the early morning to expose yourself to full-spectrum light, which is coming from the sun even on cloudy days.  In situations where there is real difficulty getting outside light, blue light therapy may be helpful, if proper equipment is available and used.  Keep in mind that blue light is helpful in the morning, but unhelpful in the evening right before bed.  If you have trouble with insomnia, try blue light blocking glasses, or just turn off any and all electronic screens a full hour before trying to get to sleep.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy:  useful for getting into a “winter mindset”, you can remind yourself not to worry about feeling bad in the winter time and work on reframing your descriptions of what’s going on with personal reminders of the fun things about winter (hot chocolate!  Peppermint!  Saunas!).  CBT has to be a sustained and disciplined approach, it’s more than just “count your blessings”, and most people need professional support to complete CBT programs, although there are some resources online.  However, with practice, CBT is an important tool in the toolbox for all kinds of depression.

Exercise:  While you’re getting your morning light, why not take a walk around the neighborhood?  Exercise is always helpful in depression, and cold weather is no excuse to lighten up on the exercise routine.

Diet:  and, of course, don’t forget the good, ol’ Mediterranean Diet, always a mainstay, but especially during the holidays and whenever you’re staying home because it’s too cold to go out and exercise!

Winter comes every year, but we don’t have to passively accept the accompanying depression.  Take action, get help, talk it over with trusted friends and get winterized!  We’re always happy to hear from readers sharing their own experiences in the comments section below, too.