It is that time of year again. The days are getting shorter and gloomier. There may be a bitter cold wind some days, and soon we may be looking outside to find out if our car is covered in snow in the morning. Your cravings for carbs hit their annual high and your levels of motivation reach their yearly depths.
Winter is coming and many of us dread it, to some degree. Increased depression during the winter in Northern regions is common. Furthermore, it can be especially difficult to deal with if your winter depression stacks on top of an already existing depressive disorder.
While many of us may experience some of these symptoms to a mild degree in winter, for others, their winter blahs become full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder (the apt acronym here is “SAD.”)SAD can occur separately from, or at the same time as Depression or mental health disorders. At Shift Counseling both Saima Shaik and Noel Cordova are experienced in dealing with depression and seasonal depression and are here to help you break free of the winter blahs!
Here is a List of Symptoms That are Common in Both Major Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder:
● Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
● Feeling hopeless or worthless
● Having low energy
● Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
● Having problems with sleeping
● Lowered libido
● Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
● Feeling sluggish or agitated
● Having difficulty concentrating
● Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Here is a List of Symptoms That are More Specific to Fall/Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder:
● Tiredness, low energy, oversleeping
● Problems getting along with other people
● Hypersensitivity to rejection
● Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
● Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
● Weight gain
How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder
The winter season is something most of us cannot avoid. If you are lucky enough to travel to a warmer location during the winter, this can be a great way to manage Seasonal Affective Disorder. Unfortunately, for most people this is not their reality. So, if you are aware that seasonal mood changes are a problem for you, it is a good idea to plan ahead and learn some ways to cope.
1. Find Ways to Maximize Sunlight Exposure or Find a Substitute.
One of the major contributing factors to winter depression is lack of exposure to sunlight, which decreases the available supply of serotonin in the brain. For more detailed information, check out this link:
If you work an indoor job during the winter, chances are good you are not seeing much sunlight. Try to maximize your exposure by taking a walk during your lunch break if possible (maybe not on the days that are not subzero, with icy conditions, and awful driving winds). On the weekends, if the weather is somewhat tolerable, make it a goal to get outside, even for just a little bit. Open shades and blinds to let as much natural light in as possible. Sometimes even if it is freezing outside, we still have beautiful sunny winter days, so try to capture some of that wonderful light!
If you spend a lot of time in a windowless area, consider getting a sunlight simulator lamp. I recommend Blue Max lights www.bluemaxlighting.com, only because I have personally used this type of lamp and have found it to be effective. There are many alternatives on the market, but I cannot speak to how well they work because I have not tried them.
2. Be Aware of Vitamin D Levels.
If you are feeling depressed, lack of exposure to sunlight and low vitamin D levels may be a factor. Talk to your doctor, who can check your Vitamin D levels with a simple blood test. Vitamin D supplements have become popular in recent years, but there is some debate about their efficacy. Some say that best way to get your recommended dose if vitamin D is by getting at least 15 minutes of daily exposure to the sun.
Here’s the catch: that means getting outside, and exposing some of your skin to the sun without sunscreen. The best time of day to do this is in the early morning, when the sun’s rays are not as strong. Of course, many dermatologists recommend using sunscreen every time you go outside, and exposing your skin to the sun without sunscreen may raise your risk of skin cancer.
You will have to weigh the risks and benefits, given your own skin type and personal history of skin health. If you are concerned, consult with a dermatologist to get more information about safe ways to get vitamin D. It is always a good idea to try to avoid sun exposure during the middle of the day, when the sun’s rays are the most potent.
3. Set Goals For The Winter in Advance.
Some people are able to stay fairly active during the winter, but if you know you are the “stay in as much as possible during the winter” type, plan ahead. Time spent at home can be quite restorative if you know how to make it work for you. This could mean picking a few good novels, getting a paint by number set, making a list of areas in your home to
clean/reorganize/redecorate, or choosing a professional development program to complete over the winter. Try to set these goals early in the season, before your motivation gets too low to feel inspired or follow through.
4. Find a Way to Exercise.
Some people love a good run in the winter. For most of us it is harder to get motivated to exercise in the winter because it feels too cold to walk, run, play outdoor sports, etc. Plus, you have to go outside to get to the gym and the last thing you want to do during the winter is go outside.
However, we need exercise more than ever during the winter to keep ourselves from falling into a depressed winter rut. Some people embrace the season by going skiing, snowboarding, sledding, ice skating, etc. If outdoor exercise in the winter is not your style, you can get a new exercise DVD, or search YouTube or cable for exercise videos. Dust off that home exercise equipment you never use.
Or, even better, join a gym or exercise class, which may help you meet new people and help you stay motivated to keep up with your exercise regimen. Just find something you don’t hate and do it as much as possible. Even if you only exercise once or twice a week, it is better than nothing. Celebrate every victory!
5. Get Social.
During the winter, other people may literally be the sunshine of our lives. Your desire to hibernate, isolate, and avoid the weather may feel overwhelming. However, it is ultimately going to make your depression worse. Some of your friends and family probably fall into one of two camps during this season: Either those who are also lonely and bored, or those who have already succumbed to winter depression and are going to be chin deep in blankets on the couch until spring comes.
Be the person in your social group who reaches out and makes plans to get together. Even if it is just for a movie or game night. Be proactive and try to have at least one thing planned for every weekend. Depression can make us feel that no one wants to be around us, so why even try. But, that kind of thinking will only lead to isolation, which will lead to more depression.
If you don’t have many friends, join a gym, activity group, church,
Meetup group, take a class- anything just to get out of the house and be around people. You’ll be glad you did.
The lack of ability to socialize during winter is probably one of the contributing factors that made the past two pandemic winters especially hard. Of course, COVID and its variants are still part of our world, even if we would prefer to forget. There is a lot we can do to mitigate our risks. Even if you don’t feel comfortable socializing in person, one great lesson that the pandemic has taught us is that online connection is possible! Try joining an online gaming group, or starting an online book club.
6. Help Others.
Volunteering is a great way to meet people, and feel better by doing some good. If the idea of signing up to volunteer seems too overwhelming, you can keep it simple. Check in on elderly or disabled neighbors or help out by shoveling
their steps and sidewalk if you have a few extra minutes. There is no shortage of lonely people or people in need. Making a difference in someone else’s life can make a big difference in yours as well.
7. Embrace the Season.
If you can’t beat it, join it. More and more I am starting to wonder how many of our holiday traditions have actually evolved as ways to help us deal with the winter. Why else would it make sense to chop down a tree, bring it into your house, cover it with lights, and then invite all of your friends over? Or, make a friend out of snow? Go ahead and get excited about decorating for the holidays. Think about the great smells and tastes of the season. Treat yourself to a cup of cocoa after you’ve shoveled out your car or your sidewalk. Go to the seasonal aisle of the supermarket, pharmacy or home goods store and see what they have that could be a winter mood booster.
8. Seek Out Green Spaces or Create Your Own.
The Garfield Park Conservatory is open almost every day and admission is free (there is a suggested donation). Oak Park also has a small conservatory and the Chicago Botanical Gardens in the Northern suburbs are also open during the winter. There are some plants that will even flower inside during the winter, such as Amaryllis and Poinsettia.
Here is a full list of flowering house plants:
You can also start some lettuce or alfalfa sprouts in late winter. If you have a full spectrum lamp, it will make them grow.
9. Identify The Winter Struggles That Bug You The Most and Do Some Problem Solving.
If getting out of bed is a problem because your room is cold and there is no light, consider getting an alarm clock that slowly emits light as you get closer to your wake time and set your thermostat to kick up the heat a couple of degrees at the time you plan on waking up. Keep a pair of slippers next to the bed. Set your coffee maker ahead of time so a fresh cup is waiting for you in the morning. Make sure you have a warm coat and boots so getting outside is more tolerable. These are just examples, the list could go on.
10. Be Careful With Sugar and Alcohol.
We know this is easier said than done, but do your best to keep on-track with a somewhat healthy diet during the winter. Eating too much sugar will only cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then crash. Which will increase feelings of fatigue and a desire to eat more. Eating too much fat also has been linked to sluggishness. Drinking too much alcohol will disrupt your sleep cycle and will leave you feeling irritable or even anxious (in addition to hungover and possibly more depressed) the next day.
Here is an article specifically about using diet to help control seasonal depression:
Also, if you keep up with your other coping skills, such as setting goals, socializing and exercise, you may be less tempted to overindulge with food or alcohol.
I hope this post was helpful. My biggest piece of advice is to stay ahead of Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, even if you find this article even after you are already experiencing this condition, there is still hope. If you feel that you would like to get more help by talking to a professional counselor, like Saima Shaik or Noel Cordova, at Shift Counseling, about Seasonal Affective Disorder, Depression or Anxiety, please reach out to set up an appointment. We would be happy to help you get through this challenging time.
Begin Counseling for Seasonal Affective Disorder in Chicago
Getting started with a depression therapist is easy. Our North Riverside, IL counseling practice is convenient to multiple areas of Chicagoland including Riverside, La Grange Park, Brookfield, Broadview, and more. If you’re ready to begin fighting those winter blues and start thriving, simply follow these steps:
- Reach out to schedule an initial therapy consultation.
- Begin working with a skilled depression therapist like Saima Shaik or Noel Cordova.
- Take back your life and thrive!
Other Services Offered in Chicago, IL
Shift Counseling, PC specializes in treating young adults with mental health concerns with a variety of techniques. In addition to therapy for depression, we also offer Adjustment Disorder Therapy, Multicultural Counseling, PTSD and Trauma Therapy, Young Adult Focused Therapy, and Anxiety Therapy online or in person.