The magic of the holiday season has come and gone, and with the cold, dark days dragging on, things can seem a little bleak this time of year. If you find yourself feeling down during the winter months, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, primarily starting in the fall and continuing through spring, and according to a study done at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, an estimated 4 to 6 percent of the population in the United States suffers from it.
If you’re not sure whether or not you have SAD, the Mayo Clinic has released a list of symptoms to watch out for, including depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, weight gain, difficult concentrating and appetite changes, particularly a craving for foods high in carbohydrates. While the specific cause of SAD is unknown, a few factors that might come into play include a disruption of your body’s circadian rhythm, and a drop in serotonin and melatonin levels due to reduced sunlight and the change in season. The good news is that there are several quick fixes you can make in and around your apartment to help fight seasonal affective disorder and boost your mood by spring. Here’s how.
• Bring the light in. One of the most effective ways to combat winter depression is with the use of an artificial light box. These small boxes, found online for upwards of $60, mimic outdoor light and are generally used for at least 30 minutes at a time to help adjust your body’s sleep cycles. You can even make your own by repurposing a wooden filing box from Ikea and purchasing some fluorescent bulbs. You can also brighten up your apartment by keeping blinds open and curtains drawn, allowing as much natural light in as possible. Sit near a window, either at home or at work, to take advantage of the sunlight. In terms of décor, use light-colored fabrics, wall treatments and rugs in your apartment during the winter to reflect light.
Related: How to Beat the Winter Blues
• Watch what you consume. Fight against the cravings and limit your intake of carbohydrate-rich foods, which will only cause a sugar crash. Instead, fill your diet with healthy foods that promote alertness and mental energy, like salmon, blueberries, whole grains, vegetables and nuts. Avoid self-medication with caffeine or alcohol. Caffeine may give you a brief jolt of energy, but it can also cause anxiety, muscle tension and other issues. Alcohol is a depressant, which can exaggerate symptoms. Try sipping on herbal tea instead, or if you must indulge, have a glass of heart-healthy red wine with dinner.
• Don’t oversleep on weekends. While it may be tempting to catch a few extra Zs on cold winter weekends, doing so can actually prevent you from fighting against the symptoms of SAD. The goal is to keep your body in sync as much as possible, so try waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day, even on weekends or days off from work.
• Load up on light. To drag your body out of its natural tendency to want to sleep all the time in the winter, take several breaks throughout the day to get as much natural light as you can. Get outside and go for a walk in the morning before work, or eat lunch outside during the day. In addition to getting some exercise, you’ll also increase your body’s capability to produce Vitamin D, both of which can lift your mood.
• Socialize. While the crummy weather and cold spells may have you looking longingly at your couch, it’s important to stay social instead of hibernating for the winter. So call up a few friends and make plans to do something fun, like grabbing coffee or checking out that new romantic comedy. Being around friends and family for even just a few minutes a day can make you feel better.
• Stay active. Just because the temperature is less than ideal doesn’t mean you should slack off on your workouts. Engage in regular aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes three days a week for optimal results. Plan your workouts for early in the morning, so you stay energized throughout the day. If your schedule doesn’t allow for a pre-work workout, studies show that early evening exercise can prevent fatigue during the evening, so plan on working out two hours before bed so your body and brain have enough time to settle down before bed.
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