In June, Mainers savor over 15 hours of daylight. In December, we get only nine. Add frigid temperatures to short days, and no wonder many of us feel down and out in winter. The most extreme form of the winter blues – Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD – only troubles 1%-2% of Americans. But as many as 20% feel down, unmotivated, grumpy and tired this time of year, compared to spring and summer.
Thankfully, the outlook isn’t all bleak. In spite of our northern location, you can take action that will help you feel sunnier all winter long.
Keeping it Light in the Season of Darkness
Keep moving. Get outside daily, regardless of weather. Physical activity taps feel-good chemicals in the brain like serotonin and endorphins. “In fact, research shows exercise is as effective as an antidepressant for easing depression,” says Kathryn Hamann, a Nurse Practitioner at Martin’s Point in Portland.
You’ll get the most impact by getting 30- to 60-minutes of rhythmic activity on most days. “Add the fun of adventure by snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in your own backyard or on local trails, or ice skating on local lakes, ponds or rinks,” says Hamann. Sledding, pond hockey and ice fishing are more great ways to get outdoors and move during winter.
With the right clothing and footwear, outdoor exercise in winter is totally doable. Squeeze it in during daylight hours, and you’ll get an additional mood-boost from exposure to natural light, too.
Be mindful. As with exercise, there’s a lot to choose from. Yoga, meditation (on your own or guided), progressive muscle relaxation, mindful walking and tai chi are all effective techniques to calm the mind and replace negative emotion with uplifting ones. Even 10 minutes a day can help.
Connect with others. Isolation is the last thing you need when you’re feeling down – even if you don’t feel like putting on a bright face. Gather a friend or two for coffee or a walk. Join a book club. Volunteer once a week at your local school or library. Pick up the phone and catch up with a relative. “Support from people we care about and community engagement create a sense of purpose that keeps you going,” explains Hamann.
Practice sound sleep habits. Stay rested. Rise and go to bed at the same times each day. Avoid caffeine and vigorous exercise late in the day. Have a bedtime ritual to signal your body that it’s time to wind down.
Pay attention to what you eat. You know the drill – more vegetables and fruits, fewer processed foods and fewer “bad” fats. It’s good for your physical health and it keeps your mood balanced. “Your body may crave pasta, doughnuts and French rolls, but try to opt for whole-grains like oatmeal and brown rice instead,” says Hamann. Boost your omega-3 fat intake by adding flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. Add vitamins D and B12 and fish oil to supplement your diet.
Consider indoor light therapy. If the strategies above don’t help, your provider might suggest light therapy. This artificial exposure to intense light using a device called a light box is thought to kick off chemical shifts in the brain that calm symptoms of SAD.
If you can’t get out of your winter rut, your health care team can also suggest other avenues, such counseling at Spurwink in Portland, and medication, which you may only need during winter months. Let your providers know how you’re feeling, and together, we’ll find an approach to make winter bearable – and maybe even fun.