As daylight savings time comes to an end, and temperatures begin to drop--marking the end of those warm, long, summer days that come and go too quickly—many people struggle to see this season as a time for “holiday cheer”, and instead see it as the start to some really difficult months ahead.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 4-6% of people in the United States have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and as many as 20% have a mild form of it, often referred to it as the “winter blues”.
So, as the days become shorter and darker, it becomes increasingly important that we tune into our minds and bodies to prepare for the grey months ahead—this is the time to adapt our mental health routine for the season to come, and focus on preventative measures that might help us to feel better prepared.
According to Psychologist Kim Burgess, PhD, founder of the Pediatric Psychology Center in Rockville, Maryland, “It’s better to set yourself up for the winter season by starting in the fall season—doing enjoyable activities, initiating friend group chats and outings, choosing fun hobbies, and engaging in clubs or community service.”
So, what are some preventative daily habits that you can start implementing now to help you tackle the winter months ahead?
Learn About the Importance of Sleep
While experts aren’t entirely certain what effectuates SAD, it’s generally believed that one of the primary causes is the disruption to our circadian rhythm during seasonal changes. Our body’s circadian rhythm is the 24-hour clock that regulates how we function during waking and sleeping hours, and when we feel energized and alert, or drowsy and ready for sleep. Not only that, but our circadian rhythm plays a role in keeping our moods and our digestion in check—it’s no wonder that when it’s off track, our mental and physical health can suffer. When daylight savings time ends, and the days get shorter and darker, our circadian rhythm can be thrown for a loop, making it difficult for us to find a regular sleep cycle that leaves us feeling rested, rather than drained. Getting the right amount of sleep plays a huge role in our overall mood, so here are some ways to become a master of healthy sleep patterns this winter:
- Routine, routine, routine! We know that sticking to a regimented routine can feel like a buzzkill for those who appreciate spontaneity, or who thrive on a lifestyle that differs daily. However, prioritizing going to bed around the same time every night, and waking up at the same time each morning, will help your circadian rhythm get back on track. You might also consider creating a bedtime routine that signals to your brain it’s time to start winding down—think: a warm shower, skin routine, drinking warm tea, etc.
- Unplug from your phone an hour before bedtime. Allowing your brain time to wind down without technology stimulation is great not only for encouraging healthy sleep cycles, but overall mental health. Consider putting the phone down an hour before bedtime, and picking up a book or journal instead.
- Try to get some light exposure outdoors within the first hour of being awake. Even though it’s tempting when it’s blustery out, your body and mind weren’t made for hibernation. Getting outdoors soon after waking up for sun exposure can help you to feel more awake and mentally prepared for the day ahead.
Focus on Micro Habits
Seasonal depression can feel like a mountain to climb, but it’s important to remember that you can only take it one step at a time—those steps make all the difference, no matter how small. Start thinking of micro habits that you can implement into your days that make you feel proud, accomplished, connected, or relaxed. Maybe it’s making your bed in the morning, journaling for 15 minutes, meditating for a few moments, taking the time to get ready for the day, creating a cozy atmosphere in your home (lighting a candle, turning on music that makes you happy, lighting a fireplace)—whatever it is, these micro habits have the power of adding up over time, and can set the foundation for you to feel more in control and motivated throughout your days in the winter.
Schedule Out a Social Calendar
During the time of year when it’s cold, rainy, and all too easy to stay indoors, intentional pursuit of social interaction becomes more important than ever. Having events to look forward to is a great way to remain engaged and motivated while navigating the winter blues. If you know that you tend to shut down socially during the winter, take the steps now to get some plans on the calendar. Try to schedule out a few meet-ups with friends, or vacations with family, in the coming months. Not only will this give you something to look forward to, but it will create a level of accountability between you and those you love to continue prioritizing social connection and experiences, even when it’s difficult to do so.
Partake in Seasonal “Mood Food”
You’ve heard it before, but there is truth in the statement that the way we eat can impact our mental health, which is why it’s especially important in the winter months to be mindful of eating foods that are not just healthy, but that make us feel good—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Believe it or not, many dieticians recommend eating seasonal diets so that your body can utilize all of the nutrient dense produce possible—this might include squashes, Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, leeks, pomegranates, kale, apples, parsnips, beets . . . the list goes on!
Certain foods, like chocolate, can also help to enhance food and relieve anxiety. You can also try out an old tactic common in Traditional Chinese Medicine—the power of warming foods (both physically and emotionally!) Think: a warm bowl of soup, or even utilizing spices such as cayenne and cinnamon, which can actually raise your body’s temperature.
Get in the Habit of Going for Walks
We know you’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating; getting outdoors and prioritizing activity during the winter months is hugely important in regulating mood. While the urge to hunker down and stay indoors while it’s blustery and cold is compelling, it’s not actually what our body or mind needs. Research has shown that hibernating for long periods of time isn’t really meant for humans, and it’s not an environment in which we tend to thrive.
According to John Sharp, a clinical psychiatrist, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) specialist at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and author of "The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life," too little sunlight is stressful and effects our emotional and physical well-being, making us vulnerable to pessimism and fatigue.
Outdoor activity doesn’t need to be strenuous or stressful, either. It can be a matter of committing to a 10 minute walk each day to start. The important part is prioritizing time outdoors (even if it is drizzly and cold), and keeping that commitment to yourself. So, do your serotonin and dopamine levels a favor, and start creating the habit of going for daily walks. Layer up and make a habit out of it—it’s likely that what might feel uncomfortable and cold in the moment, will make you feel far more awake and energetic once it’s over. The activity and exposure to sunlight is sure to do your heart and body well.
If you’re concerned about the upcoming winter blues, and the impact they might have on your mood and energy levels, know that there are things within your control that you can focus on and implement today to help you get through the months ahead. Our firm understands that SAD can feel especially burdensome and difficult to navigate when you’re also juggling big personal life issues, such as divorce, or a custody battle. If you’re finding it difficult to stay afloat and need further support, please reach out to your doctor for assistance—SAD is a very real form of depression, and not something that should be swept under the rug. Additionally, our firm has an extensive referral network, and we would be happy to connect you with a professional who can provide you with further support and mental health guidance. If this is the case, call us today at (503) 227-0200 to get connected.