Further north, snowshoe hares and arctic foxes don their striking pure white coats, blending perfectly with the icy landscape. Living in intimate and sometimes brutal connection with the elements, influenced by the subtlest fluctuations of temperature and light, these creatures move in predictable patterns dictated by their glands and hormones.
With our indoor-focused lifestyles, we can maintain the illusion that we have evolved beyond these primal seasonal cycles.
Statistics tell a different story: in northern areas, up to 10% of the population suffers from a seasonally-induced form of major depressive disorder (Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD), which clears up spontaneously as the days lengthen and warm. Some estimate that 20% of the U.S. population is affected, though not all experience symptoms severe enough for the “major depression” diagnosis, which specifies a marked impediment to one’s daily tasks. Women are at higher risk, perhaps due to our reproductive biology retaining more connection to the changing seasons. This doesn’t mean it’s natural to feel terrible in winter; SAD indicates that our biological processes feel confused and disconnected. Our body-clocks don’t know what time it is.
How do we experience SAD? We feel unusually tired. We sleep more. We may crave carbohydrates and tend to overindulge. We may feel melancholy, irritable, hopeless, or numb.
What’s happening in our bodies? Lack of outdoor light is triggering our circadian rhythms (our biological “body clock”) to enter a semi-hibernation state, but external demands, lack of contact with our natural environment, and perplexing technological stimulation all send conflicting messages. Our circadian signals get a little scrambled. Brain chemicals get unbalanced in response.
SAD patients produce excess melatonin (a hormone which triggers sleepiness) and reduced seratonin (a crucial mood neurotransmitter) during the winter months. Our hypothalmus, the part of our brain which controls appetite, mood, and sleep, responds directly to light: in winter it’s often under-stimulated in the morning, then overstimulated at night when it should be winding down. One study indicates low vitamin D levels increase SAD risk — no surprise, considering the most reliable source for vitamin D is natural sunlight. A good supplement can’t hurt, but reclaiming our seasonal emotional cycles calls for a more active approach.
Instead of looking for one magic pill, a combination of life-affirming habit changes may offer the chance to repair our fractured internal clocks, so we can learn to love winter. Even if you’re simply feeling cranky and impatient for spring (and who isn’t?) these tips may help shift your spirits.
If you’re experiencing any level of winter doldrums, try this first. Use whatever natural daylight is available: this is where you live, and your home ecosystem is the one you want to synch up with. The less light available (due to latitude or cloud cover) the longer you want to spend out there, so put on some layers and try to make it enjoyable. Window-shop, get interested in tree-identification, wander far afield in search of a new cafe, join a friendly neighborhood kickball team! If you’re trapped in a windowless office all day, try to get creative with your break times. Bundle up and enjoy your lunch in an open public square or park. Use a 15-minute coffee break for a brisk walk around as many blocks as you can reach — the awakening effects of the fresh air and movement will surpass a dose of caffeine.
For maximum benefit, remove your glasses or contact lenses if you wear them. Most corrective lenses — like window glass — block all UV light, which is a necessary part of the full-spectrum of sunlight needed to stimulate your brain’s and body’s “wakefulness” processes. Also, don’t procrastinate until the sun is sinking toward the horizon — try to plan for a morning outing to notify your body that the day is beginning, or make it closer to mid-day to get the sun’s maximum strength, wherever you are.
If you’re depressed, this may take a lot of will power. Depression is a powerful force which perpetuates itself. It urges us to stay inside in the dimness, moving our bodies little, resisting change and positive action. If you’re finding it hard to get yourself out into the light, don’t beat yourself up — guilt and self-blame only strengthen depression. Instead, get some support from friends, family, or a counselor. Try the buddy system if someone you trust is willing to knock on your door at agreed-upon times and help with motivation. Go on organized walks with your local Audubon Society or birding club. Don’t forget children are also vulnerable to seasonal grumpiness and technology-addiction — support them to get outside too. After you get into the swing of it, it gets easier.
Reduce late-night light
To maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, your body-clock doesn’t just need plenty of natural daylight: it needs real darkness too, at appropriate times. SAD causes a variety of sleep problems. Though sufferers can sleep too much, it may be at the wrong times: late in the morning, causing missed work or school, or naps in the afternoon leading to waking after dark, then staying up into the wee hours. How do we get back on track?
Allow the darkness to gently enter your home by reducing the brightness of your electric lighting in the evening. Use warm-hued, targeted illumination for eating dinner, cleaning up, talking and reading before bed. When you go to brush your teeth, try to avoid illuminating your bathroom like an operating room: it sends the message to your brain that it’s time to wake up, and even short exposure may delay sleep. If you live in an area with lots of “light pollution” (street lights or other urban nighttime brightness), blinds or a sleep-mask may be necessary…but try to remove these light-barriers around the time of natural dawn, unless your work schedule demands you rise before dawn anyway. Try to place your bed where you will benefit from the first morning light, ideally in the east of your home near a large window.
This next step is very challenging for many of us: turn off your “screens” by 9PM, or at least two hours before going to bed. Your computer and television (and yes, even your smartphone and tablet) emit blue light which suppresses the release of melatonin, disrupting sleep. Powering-down two hours before sleep is nothing short of a major lifestyle shift, and it can change your life in unexpected ways. If your household can undertake this transition together, you might find more relaxed unplugged interaction in the evening improves relationships and lowers stress. Alternatively, some of us are rediscovering the joys of old-fashioned paper books, or even learning to play a musical instrument. However if you absolutely can’t wean yourself off of nighttime tablet use, a free app called F.lux warms the color spectrum of your screen at sunset and returns it to normal in the morning, making it possible to do non-color-sensitive work on your device with less sleep disruption at night.
Light therapy: turning to technology
Though various factors contribute to seasonal animal behavior (including temperature, food-availability, and reproductive cycles), for us homo sapiens the crucial variable is light. Try the low-tech options first to see if you can tune into your climate’s natural rhythms, and if not, there are some simple yet effective plugged-in options. Research confirms that bright-light therapy is even more effective than medication in successfully treating SAD.
If you’re surrounded by thick clouds, where winter days sometimes resemble perpetual twilight (the Pacific Northwest comes to mind), you may need a little help from electricity. You can purchase a “Light Therapy” lamp for between $100 – $200 online. Try using it for 30 minutes first thing in the morning: that’s what many health advisors recommend. Look for a product that uses LEDs to minimize energy usage and carbon impact. Talk to your doctor to see if you might be a good candidate for a prescription light-box.
Get your blood moving
Aerobic exercise, which gets the lungs expanding and the heart pumping vigorously, has been shown to improve most mood disorders including SAD. Before industrialization, physical labor was built into most human routines, from hunting and gathering to farming and building. Our “progression” as a species to a sedentary lifestyle has contributed to a wide spectrum of health problems, including depression. For maximum benefit (and minimum cost), choose outdoor daylight exercise if your schedule allows. Some prefer the structure and social benefits of a gym workout, whether self-directed using the equipment provided, or joining a scheduled class. If you can’t relate to traditional forms of exercise, there are lots of alternatives out there, including social dancing, hula hooping, and even circus arts classes.
Do you live close enough to bike or walk to work, or perhaps part-way? The exposure to unpredictable weather can feel intimidating at first, but with some sturdy waterproof/windproof layers, commuting on your own steam becomes exhilarating, even addictive! If you’re not buried in snow, look around for any active winter gardening or landscaping projects: removing brush, building a low rock wall, trimming hedges and trees, or mulching beds with dead leaves can all happen if the ground is bare.
How does exercise help? It may work by stimulating neurons in your pineal gland, which acts as a “pacemaker” for circadian rhythms. It releases feel-good endorphins as a bonus, and may actually increase our sensitivity to light, making it easier for us to adjust and feel in harmony with the season.
Cut stimulant consumption
Caffeine, alcohol and sugar are all deeply ingrained in our culture, as well as most of our personal daily routines. In reasonable quantities, they can feel harmless — some products including coffee and red wine have recently been touted for possible health benefits. When it comes to mood regulation, however, everything which artificially stimulates or depresses your functioning can make the problem worse. These substances all affect hormone and neurotransmitter levels, and their consistent presence and withdrawal confuses your body and leaves your ability to self-regulate out-of-whack.
Sometimes, these little treats seem essential to keeping us going through the day. If chocolate or cocktails form a major part of your internal reward system, start with simply reducing the dose: one cookie instead of two, half a glass of wine instead of a full one. Caffeine too should be gradually cut down to avoid painful “cold turkey” withdrawal symptoms; some choose to simply set a “caffeine curfew”, such as eliminating coffee after noon. While you’re reducing your stimulant treats, start adding in different rewards which nourish your neurons: cuddle with a pet, read a favorite magazine, munch on fresh fruit and nuts, hug a loved one. Re-wiring your circuits takes some patience and perseverance, but the cravings will subside after a while.
It can help to understand that craving carbs (including sugar), caffeine and alcohol may be your body’s attempt to increase serotonin. It’s not a coincidence that a donut seems to make you feel better when you’re down: if certain neurotransmitters are depleted, stimulants actually will cause their levels to temporarily increase (and subsequently crash). Try to ward off emotionally-driven binges by boosting serotonin in more sustainable ways, such as vigorous exercise and daylight, before the cravings hit.
Set simple goals
Although our mental health difficulties may originate in cloudy weather and fluorescent cubicles, negative thought patterns make the problem more persistent. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, often used successfully for moderate to severe SAD, works directly with our “self-talk” to turn habits around. A key component is knowing our goals.
A helpful goal is easy to remember, stretches us just enough, but isn’t overwhelming. One more thing: make it concrete and measurable, so you can easily tell when you’re meeting your target. “Start a new career” may feel impossible and vague, and sets you up for failure and more negativity. “Take one on-line business course”, however, could be realistic and do-able. For SAD, start with goals which are uplift-oriented. Examples could include “go to bed before 11PM” or “Walk outside for half an hour at least four times each week”. Make yourself a little chart where you can mark your progress at least weekly, or even make notes in a journal to record challenges or celebrate successes. Make it meaningful to you, focusing on an area that motivates you: eat more whole foods, introduce a meditation routine, spend more time with friends, replace evening web-surfing with book-reading, or increase your endurance in exercise. Whichever you choose, write it down, and try to phrase it like a business goal, using numbers (number of minutes, for example, or frequency per day or week) to easily track your results.
Not only will your progress mean you’re spending more time in ways that help you feel better — the simple structure of setting basic goals followed by the positive reinforcement of following through has been shown to lower depressive symptoms.
Connect: stay social, get support
For an average “bad mood”, talking and laughing with a close friend can be the good medicine that cuts through the blues and resets the mind. Others benefit from a relationship with a professional counselor or psychotherapist, who has experience in helping individuals with SAD shift their habits and thought-patterns effectively. If you find your moods are preventing you from getting important things done, or that you’re unable to find any pleasure in activities which normally bring you joy, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Your family doctor can often recommend a local practitioner who suits your needs. Whatever you choose, keep making time for relaxed chats with whomever in your life tends to make you feel comfortable and open.
The Danish concept of “hygge” translates roughly to a combination of togetherness and coziness, perfect for those long Denmark winters. This important cultural ideal helps the Danish to consistently rank among the world’s happiest countries, despite their lack of winter sun. The soft glow of candles, sharing warm cups of tea, simmering a nourishing homemade soup, and sitting around the table together sharing stories all create hygge. It’s worth inviting some hygge into our own lives this winter, turning away from our screens and towards each other.
This time of year, the weather seems to close in around us. Waves of cold and flu viruses make the rounds, tempers get sharper, holiday parties have dwindled and many activities are made difficult or impossible by outdoor conditions.
We can feel like prisoners: let’s remember that we’re still free to write our own story. Instead of striving to re-create summer, let’s fully embrace winter, sinking into its gentler pace and introspective ambience like a big comfy chair. Give yourself permission to move a little slower, even sleep a little longer if necessary. Historically, now is a time for turning inwards: studying, mending, passing on wisdom, fermenting all manner of creative projects. The urge to escape our climate by jetting off to some exotic beach holiday is a convenient distraction from staying present with our habitat. The ease of long-distance travel provides a tempting illusion, but in the long run it’s likely to further scramble our already hampered circadian clocks.
The dark times have their own sweetness. Our bodies and minds get some much needed rest, recharging before the dizzying burst of summer returns to utilize our stored energies. Seize winter’s mid-day brilliance with all your heart, but open your eyes to the tranquil beauty of the sleeping earth, the thrilling power of a blizzard or windstorm. During these long cold nights, the stars shine brighter than ever.