It's the beginning of August. It's hot and sunny. The days are still long and the pool is still open. You might not want to think about the coming of the colder months, but if you're one of the 6% of Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or one of the additional 14% of Americans who suffer from the less severe version, called the "winter blues", now is the time to work on managing that seasonal dip in mood.
Why start now?
The days have been getting shorter for over a month now. In addition, August is the time that many Americans experience an increase in stress, especially those who work in academic settings or who have children in school. Beginning to use good coping strategies now can be more helpful than starting those strategies once you're already noticing your seasonal mood symptoms.
Coping Strategies by Symptom
You sleep much more than usual in the winter.
One sign of seasonal depression include sleeping more than usual during the winter months. Most people do sleep more than usual, but within an hour of their normal sleep duration. Those with SAD sleep on average 2.5 hours more than in the summer months, and those with winter blues sleep 1.7 hours more.
Consider using a therapeutic lamp. Set up the lamp somewhere you will find it convenient to use it daily for 20-30 minutes. It needs to be a very bright (10,000 lux) lamp that can be used at a comfortable distance (some smaller lights need to be very close to you in order to expose you to the proper amount of light.) Start using it now, before the days become short and your symptoms become noticeable. The best time to use it is first thing in the morning. If you want, you can even plug it with a smart plug and set it to wake you up in the morning (it's very bright, so this will be somewhat of a rude awakening, but you're pretty much guaranteed not to sleep in!)
Note: if you have been diagnosed with a bipolar mood disorder, you should talk to your psychiatrist about the risks of using light therapy. In those with bipolar mood illness, light therapy can trigger a manic episode.
You feel sad, irritable, or anxious in the fall or winter months.
The mood symptoms associated with seasonal changes can vary from person to person. While low energy and sadness are common, anxiety and irritability are also observed.
Exercise is a very good way to counteract low mood. Daily exercise in the morning can help wake you up and get you energized for the day. If the morning feels too hard, exercising in afternoon or early evening can help boost your mood later in the day. Aerobic exercise is particularly good for anxiety and irritability. Strength training has been shown to improve mood and self-esteem.
One particularly powerful use of exercise is to combine it with volunteering. Try signing up for a physically active volunteering program like our local City Snow Partners, which brings together volunteers with local households in need of snow removal. Or just take a walk around your own neighborhood and see who might need their leaves raked or snow shoveled.
You avoid friends and family.
If you're isolating yourself in the winter months, you're not alone. When the evenings get darker and the weather gets colder, we all tend to spend less time socializing with others.
n the summer months, social activities abound. But as it gets colder, you have to make a conscious effort to stay social. This is particularly true for introverts, who want nothing more than to spend an evening at home with a book. If that's you, it's okay to indulge in some quiet evenings. Try to strike a balance, planning for a few different social outings each week, alternated with days at home. Recurrent social engagements, like book clubs, bowling leagues and church functions help to keep you in a routine of being social. For days when you're feeling like you'd rather not go, just make a deal that you'll attend the first half hour of a social event. Once you're there, you may feel like staying.
You turn to food for comfort
It's natural to have a craving for carb-dense foods in the autumn months, leading up to a time when food used to be much more scarce. This can lead to eating processed foods that lead you to feel more fatigued and foggy-headed.
Look for comfort foods that are consistent with a healthy diet. Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory food pyramid is a good place to start, in terms of finding foods that will promote, rather than detract, from our overall health. Small changes can lead you to feel much better, such as swapping a baked sweet potato for fries, or guacamole for cheese dip. Having a baked apple with cinnamon, or a pumpkin custard, make great fall desserts. If this is a particular area of struggle for you, you may want to consult with a local dietitian to help you adapt your favorite comfort foods to healthier versions. No matter what diet you're choosing, mindful eating strategies are also important. Mindful strategies include: eat only when you're hungry, eat slowly, enjoy each bite and stop when you are no longer hungry.
You're drinking more than usual.
When the days get shorter, we reach for things that will boost our sense of pleasure. If you're reaching for alcohol, it's important to check in to see if your drinking is reaching a problematic level. The CDC considers moderate drinking up to 1 drink a day for women and up to 2 drinks a day for men. It's important to note that many mixed drinks contain much more than one drink's worth of alcohol. You might be surprised to learn how little alcohol the average American drinks, with 60% of Americans drinking one drink or less per week.
What's the harm in drinking? Heavy drinking makes depression worse over time. Those who drink often find their anxiety has worsened by the next morning, leading to an increased urge to drink again the next day. Drinking can drive a wedge between you and your partner, or between you and your children. Over time, drinking can lead to serious health, legal and financial consequences.
Changing alcohol habits can be easy for some and nearly impossible for others. If you feel you may need help, find a local AA chapter, or look into the Smart Recovery program for a secular alternative to AA. If you have a loved one who drinks, consider going to Al-Anon, a support group for friends and relatives of alcoholics.
Serious symptoms, like loss of appetite, suicidal thoughts, severe insomnia or panic attacks.
For some, seasonal depression reaches a moderate to severe level. If you're noticing that you're having trouble eating, you're having persistent difficulty sleeping, your having panic attacks or thoughts of self-harm, it's time to seek professional help. Find a therapist who can help you address the behavioral aspects of this condition and consider scheduling with a medical doctor to get a physical exam and medication consultation.