We have reached that time of year when temperatures drop and the dark of night arrives earlier every day. As a result, you may also notice a change in your mood or energy level. Here, we explain why the transition to winter affects the mind and body and offer some things you can do to keep your spirits up after the sun goes down.
We often feel lethargic in winter months for good reason. The so-called “winter blues” are a biological reaction to the changes in available daylight. Each of us has an internal clock that, among other things, regulates when we feel tired or awake. This circadian rhythm determines our sleep patterns based on information relayed throughout the body.
Research suggests that exposure to sunlight supports the brain’s release of serotonin, a chemical produced by nerve cells that contributes to a person’s happiness. However, when it gets dark earlier, your eyes send messages to your brain that you should feel tired. The brain then alerts the body to release the sleep-controlling hormone melatonin, causing that sensation of fatigue.
Though the thought of wrapping up in a warm blanket and shutting your eyes at sundown is enticing, maintaining a regular sleep cycle is key to keeping your mind and body healthy, especially in wintertime. To achieve this:
- Limit caffeine intake in the afternoon and evening
- Refrain from taking naps longer than 30 minutes
- Keep your sleep schedule consistent
- Have a nighttime routine that relaxes your body for rest
- On weekends, stay within an hour of your weekday sleep plan
SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
Feelings brought on by the change of seasons and that interfere with a person’s temperament and daily behaviors over a significant period of time may be something more serious than winter blues.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of clinical diagnosis of depression related to seasonal changes, especially the shortening of daylight hours. Though SAD can occur in the spring, symptoms most often begin in the fall and continue into the winter months.
Signs of winter-onset SAD may include:
- Changes in eating habits, usually having a greater appetite for high-carb comfort foods
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or oversleeping
- Inability to keep up with work
- Disinterest in social activities
If the transition to winter finds you experiencing severe feelings of sadness or hopelessness, you are not alone. About 10 million Americans are affected by SAD, and the condition is four times more common in women than in men. Statistics from MedlinePlus also indicate young people and those who live farther from the equator are more likely to be affected by SAD.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Because seasonal depression is linked to the lack of exposure to sunshine, one of the ways to combat it is with light. Even on cloudy days, being out in the daylight has positive results. Try spending time outside every day.
Another option to increase light exposure is to use a light therapy box. Studies have indicated that spending 20-30 minutes in front of a 10,000-lux light box helps trigger your brain to regulate the production of the hormones needed to feel happy and sleepy at optimal times during the day.
Other ideas for battling winter blues include:
- Regular exercise. Aim for a 30-minute workout five times a week.
- Eat a balanced diet. Reach for fruits, vegetables, proteins, and complex carbohydrates for energy.
- Spend time with friends. Social interaction and activities are sure to improve your mood.
WHAT WE CAN DO
At Laurie Grengs Counseling, we strive to help our clients discover balance and happiness within themselves.
If you are struggling with and feel weighed down by the transition to winter, we encourage you to contact us. We will help you determine the best course of action to find and maintain your inner light, even in the darkness.