November brings with it shorter days and less light. Many people experience some sort of reaction to this shift. The most severe is Seasonal Depressive Disorder, otherwise known as SAD.
Individuals diagnosed with SAD experience a full-scale depressive episode when the season changes. A larger group of the population experiences a milder version of SAD. Symptoms may include an increased need for sleep, sad feelings, lower energy, social withdrawal, and intense cravings for sweet or starchy food. These symptoms are also known as "the winter blues". For people experiencing the winter blues, it is helpful to create a plan of self care to lessen it's impact.
First on the list of self-care is increasing daily amounts of light. The decrease in light during winter is thought to be at the heart of the winter blues. Some theorize it impacts our hormones and causes a decreased production of serotonin in our brains. Lower levels of serotonin may lead to feelings of melancholy.
Other sources suggest the increased darkness disrupts our internal clock. This disruption leaves us vulnerable to sad feelings and low energy. To combat the winter blues, it helps to light up our homes, especially in the morning and evening. Throw open blinds and curtains to optimize incoming light. Taking a walk outside or a car ride on a sunny day can also improve mood and energy level.
Embracing community is helpful as well. Cold weather discourages going out and socializing. However, consistent social contact can help dispel winter gloom. Therefore, it is important to schedule regular social time with friends and family. Regular social contact can include setting up time to speak with friends by phone, or having a standing coffee date. Sometimes connection can be as simple as greeting others with a smile or kind word as we encounter them in our daily routine.
Practicing good nutrition and regular exercise is next on the list. Winter can make sedentary activities more appealing. Couple this with sweet cravings and it is easy to understand how easily pounds accumulate during the colder months.
To cope with sweet cravings it is a good idea to make and stick to a daily food plan. This can minimize the chance of acting on the impulse to eat a sugary treat. Finding a friend to engage in regular physical activity increases the likelihood of adhering to a regular exercise program. Good nutrition and regular physical activity greatly improves our ability to regulate emotions.
Another helpful technique is to monitor our thought patterns and intervene when we become aware of negative ones. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches us that some thought patterns influence our perceptions and can actually amplify negative feelings.
An example of such a pattern is "all or nothing thinking." Relating to winter as if the whole season is miserable can only lead to unhappiness. Better to take a balanced perspective and to note its positive aspects for a healthier outlook.
Last, but not least, we can use a meditation practice to support our self care. The cold and darkness of winter encourages slowing down and quiet endeavors-good conditions for practicing mediation. People who meditate regularly report feeling grounded and better able to manage their moods and impulses. Since research shows regular meditation practice helps reduce anxiety and depression, it is likely to ease the winter blues as well.
If you are concerned with how the change in season is impacting your mood and ability to function at home or work, it's important to seek evaluation by a physician or mental health professional. Only a trained professional can diagnose SAD. Its treatment is often a combination of light therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy, and often includes the addition of medication, such as an anti-depressant. A trained professional can help you find the best treatment plan for your needs.
Norman E. Rosenthal 2005 "Winter Blues: Everything You need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder", USA, The Guilford Press.