When the clock falls back, it signals more than the end of summer. It means shorter days and longer nights. For some people, those stretches of darkness can be the start of a months-long struggle with the seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD, which affects millions of Americans each year, is mainly about how your body responds to light and dark. Less exposure to light can trigger a chemical change in your brain, prompting feelings associated with depression. Your body also produces more melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle when it’s dark. This makes you more tired.
If you have SAD, you’re likely to feel exhausted even though you’re sleeping more. In addition, you could experience irritability, anxiety, increased appetite, and a reduced ability to concentrate. Social isolation, low energy, and being less interested in activities you enjoy are also common.
If you’re among the legions of SAD sufferers, you might think there’s not much you can do to ward off these effects. Fortunately, there are several ways you can sidestep or lessen the impacts that SAD can have on your physical and mental health.
Even if you know you face SAD every year, there are many reasons to smile. Give these ten strategies a shot. They can help you make it through the darker months without feeling like your life has been turned upside down.
1 Sleep in (or on) Silk
Silk products, including silk pajamas, sleep masks, sheets, and pillowcases, are soft, soothing, and feel great against your skin. Happily, they offer more than a pleasing touch — they can help you get a good night’s sleep. This can be critical to controlling your SAD symptoms.
As a naturally hypoallergenic and antimicrobial fiber, silk resists dirt, mold, mildew, and dust mites (and their [ew!] feces). With fewer of these particles flying around, you breathe better. Silk is also less irritating if you have sensitive skin.
2 Breathe in Aromatherapy
Just like soothing tactile experiences, soothing scents can alleviate stress symptoms. Essential oils can positively impact your mood, as well as your level of fatigue and appetite.
Adding a few drops of these oils to a bath at night can help you relax and feel calmer. In fact, research shows that poplar tree oil can relieve symptoms of depression.
3 Get More Light Exposure
Taking in some rays will keep your body from producing too much melatonin. A lightbox is a great way to brighten the room during the darker months and your mood. They can also help regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
A lightbox will supply some of the radiance the winter sun won’t. Try at least 10,000 lux for at least 30 minutes a day first thing in the morning. Although these devices are 20 times brighter than regular light bulbs, they emit a minimum of harmful UV rays.
4 Wake With the Dawn
No, this doesn’t mean get up with the roosters. Dawn simulators are alarm clocks that rouse you with increasing light intensity rather than jarring beeps or music.
Dawn simulators use the full spectrum of light, so they’re closer to natural sunlight than lightboxes. Research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people who use a dawn simulator experience milder SAD symptoms.
5 Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Frequently called “talk therapy,” cognitive behavioral therapy is a method that pinpoints and helps you fight back against your negative thoughts. It also helps you identify activities that you’ll find fun and engaging, both inside and outside.
CBT emphasizes mood boosters and squelching negative self-talk; it is an effective remedy against the winter blues. Studies show that if you undergo this type of therapy, you’ll be better able to battle SAD than relying on light therapy alone.
6 Burn Some Calories
Exercise is great for boosting your endorphins, the chemicals your body makes to reduce stress and pain. Working out at least three times a week for 30 minutes can go a long way to making you feel more relaxed and positive.
Even when it’s a bit nippy, getting outdoors is best because of the fresh air and sunshine. Depending on where you live, you might take a walk, go cross-country skiing, or even break out some snowshoes. Though treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines are good alternatives if the weather is too inclement.
7 Improve Your Diet
Watching what you eat can help control serotonin levels, the hormone that governs your sense of well-being. It also increases dopamine and norepinephrine, the chemicals that increase concentration and alertness.
Limit sweets and refined starches, and choose whole grains, fresh fruits, and lean proteins. Whole-grain carbohydrates, including potatoes with skin, brown rice, and quinoa, increase serotonin production. Additionally, lean protein, such as skinless white meat chicken, fish, and tofu, can produce more dopamine and norepinephrine.
8 Soak Up Vitamin D
People who have low levels of Vitamin D are more likely to experience symptoms of SAD. Spending more time in the sun is an easy way to increase the amount of Vitamin D you take in. But that’s the Catch-22. In winter, there are fewer rays of sunshine to absorb.
Fortunately, supplements are a practical option during cloudy winter weather. Don’t just choose a bottle off the drugstore shelf, though. Talk with your doctor about what might be best for you.
9 Write Down Your Feelings
One of the best ways to purge feelings of stress, unhappiness, and depression is to write them down. Once they’re on the page, they take up less space in your head.
If you struggle with SAD, start keeping a journal and use it to catalog your day’s thoughts, emotions, and concerns. Take about 20 minutes every night to write, reflecting on how the day went. Remember to focus on the positives, too, writing down the things you’re thankful for.
10 Stay in Touch With Others — and Yourself
In addition to these strategies, try to stay as social as possible. Reach out to friends with a phone call, text message, or video chat (particularly as the pandemic persists). Staying in touch will help you feel more connected to your friends and family and less isolated.
Just be sure to stay in touch with yourself, too. If you’re not feeling your most extroverted some evening, don’t push yourself to attend that Zoom happy hour. Have a date with a cup of tea and a good book instead.
If you try these SAD-fighting tactics and are still having trouble, reach out to your doctor. You may need antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), especially non-drowsy, can help you if you continue to struggle with SAD symptoms. Taking a comprehensive SAD-fighting approach will allow you to avoid the most severe, lingering impacts.