Is it just me or have others noticed that we are officially past the “prime” of fall? The leaves have mostly all fallen now, with only the stubborn few remaining. The mountains are rust brown instead of vibrant yellows, oranges and reds.
We’ve also reached that time of year where there are more hours of starlight than there are hours of daylight This can be a difficult time of year for many people as those increased hours of darkness can negatively affect one’s mood. Some people are so significantly affected by the changing seasons and light that they develop Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a form of major depression. Rates of SAD vary across the country and depend on where one lives (access to winter sunlight). For example, rates of SAD in Florida are about 1% compared to almost 10% in Alaska. Overall estimates of SAD in the US are about 6%. SAD is believed to affect 10 million Americans and is four times more common in women than men.
Even if one doesn’t develop clinical SAD, many others experience Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder (SSAD), which is a milder form of SAD. Even though it is a milder version of SAD, people who experience SSAD, still experience a significant reduction in life satisfaction and pleasure, decreased energy and increased feelings of sadness. Rates of SSAD are estimated to be as high as 14% of the US population.
Aside from a diagnostic perspective, fewer daylight hours seem to signal to our bodies to slow down and even “power down” compared to the high level of activity and energy one may experience in the summer months. One of my good friends described how our bodies go into their own form of hibernation, just like other animals do this time of year. This effect can include increased fatigue and time spent sleeping, increased appetite and eating, decreased physical activity, and lowered mood.
So what can we do to manage our mood if we experience more sadness or even depression during this time of year? I’ll share some concepts that are helpful and break them down into categories: Behavioral, Cognitive, and Emotional. We’ll cover behavioral strategies in this blog and address cognitive and emotional strategies in the next blog!
One of the best antidepressants available is movement. There is even research that suggests that exercise is just as effective as antidepressant medication in people with mild to moderate depression. Exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous or long. But what is important is that it is consistent. And by consistent, I don’t mean it has to be everyday. Three to four days a week should be enough to improve mood. Important pieces of exercise that you could keep in mind for managing your mood during the winter include:
- Exercise outside, in the sun, when possible. Getting more direct sunlight is an added boost to our moods in addition to the boost we receive from exercise alone.
- Exercise earlier in the day. This can help boost your energy throughout the day and regulate your diurnal rhythm. However, if you are a night person, like me, I’m going to ignore this advice and just try to be consistent about outdoor exercise, which will be helpful enough.
Regular sleep/wake cycle
Even though the winter months encourage us to sleep longer, it is helpful for our moods to keep a consistent sleep/wake cycle. If you want to sleep a little more in the winter, like 8-9 hours instead of 7-8, that’s totally fine. I would encourage you to add that extra sleep time at the front end, however. That is, go to bed earlier instead of sleeping in later. Avoid excessive sleep as it will make you groggy and even negatively impact your mood. The irony about depression or feeling sad, is it comes with an impulse to sleep more, but sleeping more than is needed for your body is not helpful for emotional well-being.
Keep regular schedule
When one feels depressed or low mood, the desire is to withdraw, crawl under the covers, and disappear. Just like excessive sleep is unhelpful, withdrawal is also unhelpful. Where possible, continue to fulfill your commitments and obligations. Often you will feel your mood lift by going to school, work, church, book club, errands, etc. You will feel a sense of accomplishment and build awareness that your mood does not dictate how you engage in your values and in your life.
It can be hard to know when and how to draw boundaries in your life and set time aside for self-care, but self-care is critical to emotional well-being. So while it’s valuable to continue to engage in your commitments, make sure you do not over-extend yourself and know when to say, “no.” Self-care entails saying “no” to obligations that will deplete your emotional reserves, while saying, “yes” to opportunities that will replenish your reserves. For example, saying “yes” to lunch with a friend, or to a fall hike, or to attending a symphony, while saying “no” to running your child’s school book fair, or picking up an extra shift at work.
There is good evidence that light therapy, or obtaining light boxes, are helpful to improve mood and energy in the fall and winter months. Sitting in front of a light box while getting ready for the day or eating breakfast, can be helpful. Like exercise, it’s the consistency of use that matters in helping mood. It is recommended that for light therapy to be effective, users should use light boxes for 20-60 minutes a day. There is also evidence that using these devices in the morning, may be more effective, as it can help set your diurnal rhythm.
Connect with others
Depression thrives on isolation. Think of a friend or two with whom you could spend time. Make commitments and keep them. Go to lunch, go to the movies, go to book club. Even better yet, get a friend to walk with you in the mornings! If this is a compassionate, understanding and trustworthy friend, I’d encourage you to share your struggle with them. Doing so can serve to decrease the loneliness and help you feel connected and cared about.
Do an act of service
I don’t mean this in a trite way that can come across like, “Stop feeling bad for yourself and think of others!” That message can smack of shame, which will only make depression worse. I suggest service as a meaningful activity because often when people feel depressed they have ruminating beliefs such as, “I’m worthless,” or “I don’t do anything meaningful or helpful,” or “I’m a failure.” Acts of service, even small acts like paying for the person’s order behind you in the drive-thru, can serve to remind you that the world is a better place because you are in it and you can always do something, even when you feel immobilized by depression! Also, it’s just a true side effect: serving others boosts our mood. It’s an excellent antidepressant. But remember, service can come in any shape or size. Don’t feel it has to be grandiose to be worthwhile! Remember to conserve your energy while also making valuable effort that will help you feel better about yourself.
Next week we will discuss more strategies to help manage our moods during the cold, dark winter months! Hang in there!