Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. - Haruki Murakami
As the cold is upon us, many of us are in the process of winterizing - taking precautions to protect our bodies with extra layers, and our animals, plants, and dwellings with extra heat. The days are getting shorter, darker, and colder, which for many also has emotional effects. For some, it may be a mild and temporary case of the "winter blues" as you adjust to the season.
For others, emotional changes may be more intense. You may feel a lot more tired, your brain may feel sluggish, and your body may feel heavy. You may wake up in the morning only to spend all day looking forward to getting back to bed as soon as possible, with not much energy or motivation to socialize or do more than the bare minimum. There may be habits like spending too much time with electronic devices, and turning to unhealthy food and drink on a more regular basis. With the festivities and chaos of the holidays upon us, this feeling and need to cocoon may get more intense, which can create an extra burden if there's a social expectation to be out, about, and celebrating.
If this sounds familiar, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). S.A.D. is a type of depression that affects some people during the fall and winter season when days become shorter and colder. The exact causes of S.A.D. are not fully understood, but it is likely the body's reaction to outside seasonal changes - causing changes in circadian rhythm and levels of melatonin and serotonin. Women, people with a history of depression, and those who have a family history of S.A.D. and/or depression are at the greatest risk for S.A.D.
Regardless of your susceptibility to the winter blues or S.A.D., it's a good idea to winterize our hearts and souls, if anything, for preparation and prevention's sake. Don't wait until you're caught in the chaos or out of sync. Here are some things you may wish to consider to take care of yourself this season.
- Get outside. Even though the instinct may be to hunker down, just a bit of time spent in daylight can help increase energy levels and improve mood. You can layer up and try a walk, or even jog or run. Even going for a drive, getting a cup of coffee, or meeting up with a friend can help reset your mood and activity level.
- Move your body. Again, snuggling with Netflix may sound a lot more appealing. However, exercise doesn't have to take long, and joining a friend in an outdoor movement activity can boost positive effects with activity and social support. Or join an exercise class - knowing that others are there sweating with you can boost motivation. A body in motion stays in motion.
- Eat high quality foods. When it's cold and dark, fast, fatty, and comfort foods become more alluring. Just make sure your food includes healthy components - dark, leafy greens, fruits and veggies across the color spectrum, nuts and seeds, whole grains. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to boost brain power. Healthy soups and stews can be made ahead and frozen for later use. Try to avoid alcohol over-use, as it is a depressant and can lead to more sluggishness.
- Nourish your spirit and soul. Lots of small things are at our fingertips to do so. The trick is to add soothing, positive energy and take away draining energy. Spend time with a quality friend who adds positive energy to your life. Meditation, yoga, hot baths, nice candles, aromatic oils, and a good book can provide much needed nourishment that isolation and electronics cannot give.
- Reach out to others in need. Stepping outside of ourselves and giving back helps draw attention to the bigger picture in life and away from internal negative rumination. Check in on a friend or smile at random strangers. Buy coffee for someone, or pick up volunteering if you can.
- Practice gratitude.
- Ask for help. If it is difficult to get out of the winter blues or you believe you may have S.A.D., help is available from physicians, psychologists, counselors, and other healers. By working with a professional, you can determine how to best manage your concerns.
I am a Houston psychologist. For more information about my practice, visit DrGortner.com.