Mind-Body-Advisor: How to Lighten Seasonal Depression
If you feel down when the days get shorter, seeking brighter light is only one strategy that can help.
Get as much light as you can, but also use exercise, nutrition, and other strategies that will ease seasonal depression.
Make your seasonal mood-boosting plan now, before the shortest, darkest days of the year are upon you. Your plan should include multiple mood boosters, including exposure to sunlight, exercise, social contact, and constructive attitude adjustment. As you find which strategies work best for you, build those into your life. For instance, some people find a midwinter trip to a sunny climate helps them make it through the season. Others find their salvation on the ski slopes or at the gym, or in coming together with friends and family.
• Let there be light! Getting exposure to sunlight can be a powerful way to boost your mood. In fact, on a sunny day, the brightness outdoors is many times greater than the light emitted from a high-intensity light fixture. If you can go out for a walk when the sun is out, put on your overcoat and get outside. Don’t be daunted by the cold, but do bundle up so you'll be safe and comfortable. Treat yourself to the things that help you get out-of-doors on a cold but sunny day: a new, warm coat; snow boots; thermal underwear—whatever it takes.
• Buy some bulbs. When you can't get any outdoor light, a high-intensity indoor light fixture can help. You don't need to buy a full-spectrum bulb; just use standard CFL bulbs with a color temperature of 4100 Kelvin. If you have the budget, you can try using a light box, which is designed to provide therapeutic doses of light to SAD sufferers.
• Get moving! Boosting your exercise in the winter can provide a powerful lift to your mood and your energy. If your climate or job makes it difficult to be active outside during the day, find ways to work out at home or in the gym.
• Eat for energy throughout the fall and winter, combining lean protein and complex carbohydrates in your meals. Limit your consumption of alcohol, sugar, and high-fat foods, all of which may temporarily lift your mood but then leave you feeling tired soon after.
• Change your thoughts. Learning to think less negatively will help improve your mood. If you notice yourself feeling less peppy or enthusiastic during the winter, you can accept that feeling as a normal response to the dark and cold of winter without getting down on yourself about it. You can also respond to negative thoughts like "I hate winter," and "I can’t deal with this," or "Winter is never going to end" with "I know what to do to feel better" and "Winter is a challenge, and I become stronger by meeting the challenge."
• Reach out. When the world seems colder and darker, your connections with friends and family can supply the love, warmth, and stimulation to help sustain you.
• Reach in. Your inner life can be a source of vitality and inspiration when the natural world is gray and seems dormant. Prayer, meditation, inspirational reading, and religious observation provide inner light that can illuminate your journey through the darker days of fall and winter.
• Get help. If you are experiencing significant seasonal depression or have a recurrent pattern of seasonal depression, you may benefit from consulting with a psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical social worker, or mental health counselor who specializes in treating mood disorders. You can find a qualified practitioner by contacting your local mental health association, or the behavioral health department at a medical center in your area. You can find more information about SAD and light therapy from the Center for Environmental Therapeutics.
5 Bright Ideas for Coping with Darker Days
You can brighten your mood during winter's dark days with 5 simple strategies, including light therapy for SAD (seasonal affective disorder).
Keep your body clock on schedule, and use natural and artificial light to your advantage.
# 1: Stop hitting the snooze button.That is, try your best to keep to the
same sleep hours on workdays and weekends. “Oversleeping, even if only on
weekends, allows your circadian rhythms [your internal body clock] to drift
later, out of sync with local time,” says Terman. “And that can trigger the
lethargy and low mood associated with winter.”
# 2: Eat at the same time every day—and no later than 8 p.m. for dinner
(to avoid interfering with your sleep). “Just as with light, our biological
clocks respond to meal timing,”says Terman, “and consistency is the name of the
# 3: Schedule some outside time.Light therapy for SAD or milder mood
problems begins outdoors. If your schedule allows it, make a point to exercise
outdside, after the sun is up. “Less exposure to natural light is at the root
of the winter doldrums,” says Terman. “By working out in daylight, you’re
getting more light than you otherwise might and you’re fighting depression with
aerobic exercise.” When your schedule precludes outdoor time, gym workouts can
still make depression less likely. Make sure you work out at the same time most
days, says Terman, and avoid working out in the late evening hours before
# 4: Let there be light. To counter the season’s
reduction in light, create it—by purchasing a light-therapy box (a box that
emits bright light that mimics natural outdoor light, which is more intense
than normal household lighting). “By my estimate,” says Terman, “half the U.S.
population would benefit by using a light box for 30 minutes before work [light
therapy can cause insomnia if performed late in the day]. It’s just a highly
convenient and effective breakfast-table routine.” By the time you’re done with
your eggs and the paper, he says, you’ll likely have received enough light
therapy to prevent any mood shifts and stay energetic throughout the day.
# 5: Win the battle of the bulb. To a lesser extent, indoor
light can also help combat the doldrums. But you don't need full-spectrum light
bulbs, which can cost more than 10 times their non-full-spectrum cousins. “At
the intensity needed to achieve an energizing/antidepressant effect, full-spectrum
lighting is glaring and uncomfortable and it’s no more effective than regular
indoor light, at an appropriate intensity, at easing winter symptoms,” Terman
says. Instead of scouring the aisles for full-spectrum bulbs, Terman suggests
choose light bulbs based on color temperature ratings. “A color temperature
around 4100 Kelvin is ideal,” Terman says. “Higher color temperatures of 5500
Kelvin and above should be avoided.”
Still feeling blue, despite actively trying to lighten your days? You
may have clinically significant depression. To get an objective assessment
of where you fall on the seasonal-depression spectrum, check out the
Center for Environmental Therapeutics’ Personal Inventory for Depression
and SAD—an online symptom self-assessment at www.cet.org. And, of course,
consult your doctor.