Do short days and gloomy winter skies have you feeling down? Help is on the way.
If you're anything like me, it's a familiar feeling. You wake -- too late -- on a winter morning, glance out the window and see an unrelievedly gray sky. And you feel unrelievedly gray inside as well. The gloomy winter weather has sapped your energy and left you feeling melancholy and downcast. All you want to do is curl up in bed and binge-watch your favorite series until spring comes along.
Of course, that's not really an option. Few of us have the luxury to opt out of our active lives for the darkest months of the year. The good news is there are things you can do on your own to fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the mood-altering effects of limited sunlight in winter. Most of them are easy and low-cost as well.
1. Decide if you have mild winter blues or full-blown SAD.
The first thing to do if you feel the winter weather is affecting your mood is to be honest with yourself and determine just how bad a problem you have. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 4 to 6 percent of the population may have true SAD or winter depression. If that describes you, you may need more than a do-it-yourself solution. Counseling, professional light therapy, and even antidepressants might give you serious relief, so if you have a deep case of winter sadness, please consider seeking professional help.
Another 10 to 20 percent of the population may have a milder form of SAD. Women, for some reason, are more susceptible than men, as are people who live far from the equator (because winter days get shorter as you move toward the North and South poles).
That describes me. I've lived most of my life in northern latitudes, and two years ago, my husband and I relocated from Woodstock, New York to Snohomish, Washington, near Seattle. My New York friends kept asking: How would I deal with the relentless rain and cloudiness of the Pacific Northwest winter? One told me a cautionary tale of a friend who'd moved to Seattle with her husband, couldn't take the gloom, and wound up moving back again. I spent a fair amount of time worrying about this myself, knowing that even on the East Coast, the darkness of winter tends to get me down.
I'm now more than halfway through my third Western Washington winter, and while the lack of light is definitely a thing, I've learned how to cope with it well enough to stay on a pretty even keel emotionally throughout the year. Here are some science-supported coping techniques, most of which I've tried. They work for me, and if you have a mild version of SAD, they will work for you too:
2. Get as much indoor daylight as you can.
Position your workspace near a window. Get a room with a skylight. Insulate your porch so you can spend time there in the winter. One way or another, make sure to let as much sunlight fall on you throughout the day as you can. In the house we rented when we first moved to Snohomish, I loved my office, which was upstairs and had two large windows facing west. I put my desk right next to one of the windows.
In our new house, my office has a much smaller window, but the living room is surrounded by picture windows with commanding views. In the winter, I spend some time there every morning before I start work. I can feel my mood lifting while I sit there.
3. Get outside as much as you can.
Whether it's cloudy, rainy, or gloriously sunny, the light you get by going outdoors is dramatically more intense than light coming through a window, and window light intensity drops dramatically for every foot you move away from that window. Take advantage of this dynamic by getting outside, at least for a little while, every day, or as often as possible. The ideal time to do it is around noon, when sunlight is at its brightest.
4. Get regular exercise.
Exercise is a proven depression fighter and mood booster, and it has been shown to help alleviate SAD. To get the best benefit, do your exercise outside during daylight hours and get extra sunlight as well. Take a walk at lunchtime, for example.
5. Use a light box or dawn simulator.
A light box is specially designed with fluorescent lights to supplement your need for light. You will usually sit in front of the light box, (or wear a special light visor) for at least 30 minutes a day during low light times of year. A light box should emit about 10,000 lux to be effective. You should use the light box within the first hour after you wake up, sitting about 16 to 24 inches away, with your eyes open but not looking directly at the light box. Avoid using the light box late in the day, or it may interfere with your sleep.
A dawn simulator is a second alternative. Dawn simulators mimic the effect of dawn brightening to full sunrise over a course of 30 minutes to two hours. They're usually used right before awakening, gradually brightening your room until you wake up (with or without an alarm) at full sunrise. Dawn simulators usually emit much less intense light than light boxes, and since most of the treatment takes place while you're sleeping, they are often a more convenient choice and easier to stick with. Studies comparing light boxes and dawn simulators have shown varied results in which sometimes the dawn simulator appears more effective, and sometimes the light box. So use whichever you prefer, or try them both to see which works better for you.
Ultraviolet lights and "full spectrum" lights are not replacements for a light box or dawn simulator, so don't use those. In particular, don't use a tanning bed, which, besides having no effect on your SAD, can be harmful to your eyes and skin.
6. Take vitamin D.
Many doctors have begun urging patients to up their vitamin D intake. This is especially useful during winter months, since low levels of D were shown to be connected to SAD in at least one study. So start taking D or up your D intake during the winter months.
7. Have a sunny getaway.
If you can swing it, arrange to go away for a few days or even a weekend to someplace where there's a lot of sun. Getting even a brief vacation is likely to lift your mood in itself, and getting some extra sunlight, even for a couple of days, will do a lot to take the edge off your winter blues. That effect will last for a while after your vacation -- maybe even long enough to get you to spring.