The holiday season comes with many joyous celebrations, but it can also be a difficult time of year.
Even those with the most positive outlook can come down with a case of the winter blahs as the coldest and darkest season lingers on. The air turns chilly. The skies darken earlier.
For many people, winter’s arrival brings feelings of sadness, fatigue and gloom.
As many as 1 in 5 Americans experiences winter blues. And about 6 percent of the population develops a more serious condition known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
For them, winter sadness often goes hand in hand with a craving for carbohydrates, weight gain, trouble concentrating, sleep disruptions and a loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy.
If you have symptoms of SAD or thoughts of harming yourself, tell your doctor. He or she can assess your condition and recommend a treatment that’s right for you.
8 Tried-and-True Ways to Beat Seasonal Sadness
Since we aren’t like bears with the luxury of hibernating, we have to find other ways to bust through the winter doldrums. Try these tips.
With the shorter days of winter, you soak up fewer of the sun’s rays. As a result, your pineal gland doesn’t produce the sleep hormone melatonin on the correct schedule, throwing off your normal sleep routine and your mood.
For some people, increasing daily exposure to sunlight provides relief. Try spending more time outdoors. Invest in some warm outerwear that will make your time outside more pleasant.
Take a long walk outside at lunchtime or go sledding on the weekends. If you can swing it, a vacation to a warmer climate can give you a boost. If not, you may feel happier just by arranging your home or office so you can sit facing a window during the day.
Others, especially people with full-blown winter depression, may need structured light therapy. Light therapy resets the brain’s circuitry and restores proper rhythms. In fact, studies show light therapy works as well as medication to treat severe cases of SAD.
Working out does more than strengthen your heart and muscles. Moving your body sparks chemical reactions that boost your mood.
Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity four to six days per week. But don’t worry if you can’t fit that into your schedule. Even smaller amounts of exercise may help you feel better.
If you pick an outdoor sport, you’ll double the benefit by soaking up more sunshine, too. Remember to wear lots of layers and peel them away as your body heats up.
3. Vitamin D
Americans’ vitamin D levels peak in the summer and drop in the winter. It’s no wonder: Your skin produces the “sunshine vitamin” when exposed to the sun’s rays. These dips in D may alter the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine in your brain, dragging down your mood.
Some studies suggest that vitamin D supplements can improve your mood. You can also get more vitamin D through your diet by eating oily fish or drinking fortified milk or orange juice. Your doctor can help you find out if vitamin D could work for you.
4. Choose Good-Mood Foods
Folate and vitamin B12 may boost your mood by playing a role in serotonin production. So why not expand your shopping list to include fortified whole-grain breakfast cereals, lentils, oatmeal, beets, shellfish, wild salmon, low-fat dairy and eggs. They are all rich in these nutrients.
5. Negative Ion Therapy
Air ionizers create molecules with a negative electrical charge. Some research suggests that exposure to these ions may boost your mood, perhaps by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Many people purchase ionizers to use at night to relieve seasonal sadness. In one study, participants exposed to 30 minutes of ionized air focused more on positive emotions and dwelled less on negative words and facial expressions. However, doctors say that more work is needed to definitively prove the effectiveness of ionizers.
6. Positive Thinking
You can’t control the weather or others’ behavior. But your mind has tremendous power to heal itself. Changing your attitude can help you overcome a mild bout of the blues. And it can help you stick with your treatment in more severe cases of SAD.
Instead of focusing on your sadness, focus on the improvements you’ve made and the work you’ve done to cope. Use positive self-talk — either in your head or out loud — to keep yourself on track.
For instance, if you’re thinking “I can’t do this” or “everything is going wrong,” turn it around and say, “I’ve dealt with this before, and I can do it again,” or “I’ll do the best I can.”
7. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
If you can’t talk yourself out of a slump, consider discussing your feelings with a counselor or other mental health care provider. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a special type of talk therapy that has been proven effective for people with SAD.
A professional in cognitive behavioral therapy can help you develop skills to cope with changing seasons. You’ll learn to stack your schedule with engaging, pleasurable activities each day. And you’ll practice combating the negative thought patterns that perpetuate winter blues. This set of skills can be helpful long after the ice and snow begin to melt.
When other treatment methods aren’t right for you, your doctor may recommend antidepressant medication. Some people need it only during the winter months, while others find taking it year-round works best. Medication is often used together with light therapy or counseling. Talk to your doctor to learn more.
*Preventive services at no cost applies only to members enrolled in non-grandfathered health plans. You may have to pay all or part of the cost of preventive care if your health plan is grandfathered. To find out if your plan is grandfathered or non-grandfathered, call the customer service number on your member ID card.
Sources: “Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2008; The Mayo Clinic, 2014; “Coping with Holidays and Family Celebrations,” American Hospice Association, 2005; National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; Teenhelp.com, 2014