Winter is a festive time of year. With an abundance of seasonal holidays and celebrations, peppermint-flavored treats, cozy decor and snow-filled activities, it’s a time often rife with nostalgia and fond childhood memories. Yet winter is a notoriously difficult time of year, too. It’s cold and dark, heat bills go up, taxes are right around the corner, and the holidays can come with their own unique pressures.
Fortunately, the Winter Solstice has just passed, and that means, slowly but surely, there are more hours of sunlight each new day. Historically, cultures around the world have celebrated the Winter Solstice as a promise of the sun’s return. Even today, the festivities of the season serve as both a distraction from the darkest days of the year and a way to propel us forward into the new year and the extended light that comes with it.
Despite this gradual lengthening of the days, the winter blues are as real as they are symbolic. While not a medical diagnosis, mood shifts are a commonly reported observance during the fall and winter months, often fraught with feeling lethargic and a bit unhappy. With all the seasonal stressors and less-than-ideal weather, no one should feel expected to be holly jolly all winter, but there’s a difference between fleeting mood shifts and seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a clinical diagnosis that affects millions of adults and often lasts around 40 percent of the year, usually the late fall and winter months. People living with SAD experience symptoms of depression like perpetual fatigue, appetite change, difficulty concentrating, and losing interest in previous hobbies. The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but it’s generally linked to a lack of sunlight as days get shorter and nights longer. Your body’s internal clock, and your serotonin and melatonin levels, can all be affected by sunlight. So if you get moody when the clouds roll in, you’re not just being dramatic— there’s science behind those emotions.
For people living with SAD, and those experiencing a wave of seasonal blues, it can be healthy to remember the future holds brighter days, but that doesn’t always help depression felt in the present. Along with getting as much sunlight as possible and seeking medical attention when necessary, depressive symptoms can be partially alleviated by lifestyle improvements, such as a healthy diet and exercise.
When you’re already feeling down it can be tough to motivate yourself to even get out of bed, let alone start a new diet and exercise regime. It’s okay to start small. Open your curtains and let in all the light you can. Put on a jacket and open the window, just for a quick breath of fresh air. Since you already have the jacket on, why not add shoes and step out for a quick walk?
Once you’re outside, pay attention to the nature around you— even just in your neighborhood. At first glance winter might look dead and hollow, naked trees and frosted over grass, but underneath the stillness there is life. Not just those hardy winter blossoms, but even the seemingly lifeless branches and fallen leaves are quietly humming with life.
Just like we gather up food and grateful spirit during fall to help us survive the winter, plants gather and store nutrients before going into hibernation. Snow, the pinnacle, picturesque symbol of winter, provides a blanket to protect plants from the cold. When it melts, it moistens and prepares the soil for fresh growth.
Plants know how to take advantage of this dormant season so they can prosper when the sun returns. Try taking a page from their book and absolve yourself from any pressure to bloom and bear fruit. Instead, use this time to rest, heal, and gather your strength.
Speaking of bearing fruit, another way to lean on nature is to eat seasonal fruits and vegetables. Oranges, pears, and squash are plentiful in winter months. While iIt’s common to crave carbohydrates and gain weight as a symptom of SAD, incorporating more fresh foods is one way to combat unwanted pounds. Fruits and veggies are also a welcome reminder of blooming life even during winter, and it’s a chance to eat something different from the rest of the year, possibly creating a reason to look forward to the season.
It can be tempting to feel like the weather is the enemy, but don’t forget to pause and enjoy it a little when you can. Sure, the snow makes it harder to get around, but that doesn’t need to take away from the beauty and joy of the glistening white flakes. There’s a Scandanavian saying, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.” And although the thought of layering up may seem daunting, a still and silent walk through your neighborhood can feel like a secret escape. The simple act of proving to yourself the cold can be enjoyable opens up endless possibilities. Like the fun of building a snowman, or inciting a snowball fight. Don’t let the rain stop you from taking that walk, either. Put on your rain boots and go out for some good old fashioned puddle stomping. Sometimes the most exhilarating actions are the ones that are the most childish.
Living with SAD isn’t easy, and this past year has made it even harder. Untreated, SAD can develop into social isolation, drug abuse, or suicidal thoughts. If you’re feeling continuing or debilitating depression don’t be afraid to reach out and seek medical assistance. Common treatments include the use of light therapy, psychotherapy, and antidepressants.