Feeling SAD? It Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder

season affective disorder SADHave you been experiencing low energy and fatigue since we set the clocks back? Many of us in the Northeast seem to be complaining about the winter blues this week. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also called winter depression, winter blues, or seasonal depression can have us feeling “under the weather.” Decreasing amounts of sunlight and colder temperatures have a real effect on our moods and zap our energy levels.

 

Some common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Greater need for sleep
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weight gain

I have suffered from these symptoms every fall and winter since my early twenties. But over the past 15 years, I have developed a plan to get me through these cold, dark and dreary days – without needing a nap at 4:00 every afternoon. Here’s what I do to combat SAD:

Use a natural spectrum energy lamp.

I use a “Happy Light” to help combat the effects of seasonal change. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and seems to cause an increase in the brain chemicals (called serotonin) linked to mood. My light is small enough to sit next to my computer; I use it every morning for at least 20 minutes while having breakfast and checking emails. If I miss even a few days, I struggle to function and everyone around me notices.

Avoid caffeine late in the day.

You don’t need to stop drinking your coffee – that would be ridiculous. I have my two cups of coffee in the morning, but never after lunch. This may sound counter-intuitive, not stopping by Dunks for an afternoon pick-me-up, but caffeine can actually make things worse. Caffeine suppresses serotonin and can lead to the inevitable energy crash later – making you feel worse.

Resist comfort foods.

This one is hard because we yearn for starchy, fatty and sugary foods this time of year. The serotonin decrease that comes with these short, cold days makes us want comfort food like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, casseroles and pie; but giving into those urges will eventually lead to a crash, setting up a vicious cycle. Meal planning becomes critical this time of year to help me resist giving into these cravings.

Fight the urge to hibernate.

Get outside every day. This used to be a tough one for me. When my boys were young it was easy to stay inside on a cold winter day playing Legos, snuggled on the couch reading, and of course cooking comfort food. Now I make sure there is always a reason for me to leave the house EVERY day, even if it is just to go to the post office and grocery store. November and December are often busy with extra activities, but when January hits so can the depression. I plan ahead for January and February and the trick here is signing up for things I can’t back out of. I give more presentations, exhibit at many home shows and join committees that have events during those months (Hint: I am easy to find in January & February).

EXERCISE!

This works! But it can be harder than avoiding comfort food because I like healthy food – but hate to work out when it is cold. However, over the years I have realized that I feel more energetic when I exercise; plus it helps with sleep and cravings too. Still, if I don’t make it part of my routine, it is less likely to happen.

Stick to a routine.

Getting up and going to bed at the same time every day is helpful, but meal planning and creating a time to exercise are critical pieces for me. Start each week (and every morning) with a plan. If you are using a light box, do it at the same time each day and link it with an activity you can’t avoid. What exercises are you going to do? When? Building exercise time into your schedule helps you get started; then stick to your workouts.  Decide what your weeknight meals will be on Sunday, and then get those healthy foods into the house. Nobody makes healthy food choices when they are tired and hungry at 5pm on a Wednesday night.

For many people, dietary changes, combined with light therapy and exercise, can improve mood, decrease cravings and increase concentration. Incorporating these habits into your daily routine will make a difference. It certainly has for me!