The romance of a “winter wonderland” and newfallen snow is a big part of the annual traditions many of us look forward to every holiday season. But, once the new year rolls around, we settle back into routines — school, work, kids, shovelling — and the stark reality that the winter can feel really, well, hard.
The days are (literally) darker and the winter blahs aren’t something you’re imagining. The feeling of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or “seasonal sadness” is very real and backed by science:
● When the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, most of us spend more time inside, and our levels of physical activity lower.
● Our bodies are naturally inclined to begin producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles, when the sun goes down. If you feel sleepier earlier in the day, it’s because you are — your body is producing chemical reactions to induce sleep beginning in the late afternoon instead of in the evening.
● Winter is the season of comfort food. While we can all certainly use a little bit of high-calorie comfort when we think about having to scrape ice off the car for the 47th time, those types of foods tend to be high in simple carbs and sugars. Yes, they can boost our moods, but with every carb-induced sugar high comes an eventual fall.
Combine those three happiness-averse realities and you have yourself a recipe for winter sadness that, as with many aspects of situational psychological health, we also pressure ourselves to think we should be able to just get over. Not only is seasonal sadness a well-documented reality, but when we force ourselves to try to unrealistically become happy without acknowledging what is truly bothering us, we can end up even unhappier than before.
Unless you’re a full-time alpine skier or in the business of snow plow repair, it’s clear to see why winter can be a common challenge for many of us. The good news is that, with so much of the winter slowdown directly related to our physical rhythms and habits, there are several medically-researched tricks you can use to bio-hack your way to your happier, more balanced self – no matter what’s happening outside.
Our bodies are designed to respond to sunlight, whether to boost vitamin D or regulate our sleep patterns. Our circadian rhythm — the roughly 24-hour phase of biological processes that control our sleep — is driven by exposure to light. Evolutionarily, it makes sense: Go to sleep when it’s dark and predators can’t see you; wake up when it’s light and predators can see you. Simple.
In the modern age, we’ve invented just about every habit, social norm, and technology we can think of to circumvent our natural sleep rhythms, and sleep issues tend to be exacerbated even further in the winter. We are very much not designed to wake up in the pitch black, and yet for a lot of folks, sleeping in until the sun rises at 9 AM isn’t an option.
Light therapy to the rescue: If access to real daylight isn’t an option, then it’s time to fake it ‘til you make it. Sunrise alarm clocks have built in LEDs with sunrise and sunset functions that mimic regular light exposure to help you sleep and wake more normally. For an extra mood boost, more intense light therapy lamps can help you further control your light intake throughout the entire day and can be used anywhere in your home or office.
At the same time as you up your amount of healthy light, you want to be equally sure to diminish your screen time and exposure to harmful blue light of digital devices. Try to not use any digital screens for at least 60 minutes before you plan to hit the sack – but if you just can’t manage to put your phone away, use device settings or apps that automatically reduce brightness and blue light for you.
Caffeine is your frenemy
This is a hard one for lots of people, and many of us will have made new year’s goals to tackle our coffee habits. Kicking coffee completely might not be possible, but how you drink it can help make it more effective if you find yourself relying on it more than usual during the winter.
Like lots of things in life, when it comes to coffee, less is more. Our bodies become adjusted to caffeine based on how much and how frequently we drink it. It might feel counterintuitive - and there might be an adjustment period based on how many javas you’re currently throwing back all day - but having fewer coffees spread out throughout the day will make the effect of caffeine stronger.
At the same time, avoiding coffee later in the day helps your body regulate its own energy levels, particularly during a mid-afternoon slump or in the evening. Ideally, one coffee in the morning should be enough to help get you going. Then, as hard as it might be, rely on healthy food and some afternoon exercise to keep you moving and alert the rest of the day.
Turn to tried-and-true mental health boosters
Depression is an incredibly complex and individual experience that uniquely affects each person who encounters it. Unpacking the concept of the “winter blahs” in relation to depression is difficult; for some people, seasonal sadness is more fleeting - a temporary but addressable feeling. For others, it can be a more documented form of depression frequently diagnosed as Seasonal Affective Disorder. For people living with clinical depression, the extra challenges brought on by the winter are very real.
For everyone, there are certain well-known and researched practices used to address symptoms of depression and anxiety at any time of year that are also useful in dealing with seasonal sadness, no matter the frequency and severity you’re feeling:
● Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches coping skills in a wide variety of situations. A proactive clinical approach to help you address your thoughts and feelings about situations, it can be effective to not only alleviate current depressive feelings but can prepare you to feel less impacted by them in the future. Because feelings of winter sadness come around every year, CBT can help ease both the current and future stress of seasonal struggles.
● Even a small amount of outdoor exercise can have a huge impact on our psychological health and well being. This can be easier said than done for all the reasons we’ve already talked about, but even a 5-minute walk around the block can have a demonstrable impact on mood and mental health. A few keys to getting moving in the winter: Schedule an activity in your calendar so you know exactly when and where you’ll do it; don’t stress about the length of time or level of exertion; and try to get your brief stint outside done in the morning or during a period of daylight.
Do what feels best for you
Ultimately, and most importantly, try not to compare yourself to any winter sport aficionados you see skating, skiing, or scoring goals. Yes, your neighbour might be out for their 6 AM jog in a parka, but don’t obsess over how they’re doing something that you don’t feel ready, or willing, or able to do yourself.
The best way you can help address winter sadness is to be honest and kind to yourself about how you feel in the winter. Know that whatever way you approach caring for yourself is the best for you. If you start to feel more energetic and are up for outdoor activities, that’s great. The goal is to carve your own path and find small, easily repeatable new habits that work for you until the sun starts shining a bit bigger and brighter again.
Jeremy Elder is a Toronto-based content marketer and copywriter with over a decade’s experience telling stories for some of the world’s biggest brands. He’s an expert at finding WiFi wherever you least expect it.