5 Tips for Making Winter Suck Less When You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder

Publish date:
December 1, 2015
depression, winter, sad, seasonal affective disorder, cold

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or, appropriately, SAD, is a type of depression that changes predictably with the seasons. For most people affected by this mood disorder, this happens during the dark, cold winter months. (However, some experience their symptoms during the summer. This is also called "summertime sadness," and now you have Lana Del Rey stuck in your head.)

Even if you don't have full-blown clinical depression, the winter blues are a real thing for over 3 million Americans per year. SAD is more than just, “Man, winter sucks. I’m ready for spring.”

We feel it coming on with the first cool fall breeze, or the first colorful leaf, or the first Pumpkin Spice Latte; while our friends get excited for the fall weather, its appeal loses some luster for us because of the dark, dreary winter that follows.

Unfortunately, most of us don't have the resources to flutter off to a nice, warm, tropical environment for the winter like the birds do. So below, I have listed some of my survival tips to preempt the SAD-ness that awaits us for the next few months.

1. Let there be light.

Let's start with the obvious one. Wintertime SAD is at least partially caused by changes in the sunlight patterns outdoors. If you have a standard workday job, you'll probably find yourself driving to work in the dark and driving home in the dark.

While we can't do anything about the length of daylight outside, you can take some steps to maximize your sunlight use. On a milder day, take a break from work to walk down the street for a cup of coffee. Open the blinds if you have an office window.

If you don't, find a place near a window where you can take breaks, do some work from your laptop, or take a conference call. My office has floor-to-ceiling windows, so I don't even bother with the light switch on sunny days. All sunlight for me.

You may have heard of the sunlight box, such as the Happy Light brand. The main difference between the sunboxes and a normal natural light bulb is how much light they give off. Even with a full-spectrum bulb, a well-lit room is not as bright as the outdoors on a sunny day, right? Sunboxes replicate that outdoor brightness.

You can also look into a dawn simulator, which kind of tricks your brain into thinking it's July by creating a gradual increase of light that your retinas detect while you're still asleep. Sort of like how humans used to wake up before we went and created nonsense like "jobs" and "paying rent."

I have yet to personally test either of these options -- I went the cheap route and bought a full-spectrum "daylight" lightbulb and a small lamp. I couldn't find any clinical research on this $8 solution, but I do like having the natural-colored light in my apartment instead of the gross yellow light from traditional bulbs.

A few years ago, during a particularly gross winter, I bought a short-term membership to a tanning salon. I’d just go in for a couple minutes at a time; I mostly just wanted to feel warm. I have to admit, it did mend my attitude. But I’m resisting that temptation from now on; cancer doesn’t really seem worth it.

2. Get moving.

I hate to beat the exercise horse, but it really does help. And not just because of the famous endorphins. Setting a goal will give you something to focus on during the cold months.

For example, one January, I signed up for a triathlon that was scheduled for May. I regretted this almost instantly when I first tried to swim laps. I’m mostly a lifter, so I didn’t move gracefully through the water. Plus, going outside into the cold, dark night isn’t very appealing after a swim.

But I didn't want to waste my money or fail miserably in the event, so I kept working at it. I swam several times a week, and when I wasn't swimming, I was biking and running. My progress was encouraging, and the pride I had in myself improved my overall mood noticeably.

Setting goals and seeing your progress is not limited to exercise, but using exercise as part of your goal kills two birds with one stone, leaving you more time to do the other thing exercise is good for: sleep.

SAD and sleep are connected. Disrupted circadian rhythms from the altered light-dark patterns outside make sleep difficult. Insomnia contributes to SAD. And SAD, in turn, contributes to insomnia. No wonder I had such an unhealthy relationship with NyQuil.

Exercise won't completely fix this insomnia problem, but I do know that I sleep like a baby after a long swim.

3. Add some spice.

If you're like me, you have several varieties of hot sauce on the counter, as well as multiple chili powders, pepper flakes, and other spicy additions for your food. It's a taste I've acquired in recent years, and I'm so thankful that I did, especially in the winter months.

I spice up my soup, my vegetables, my rice, and I even added some chili to a mug of hot cocoa once. (This was a failed attempt at making atole. Do not try at home.)

Capsaicin (the compound that makes your mouth burn) increases blood flow, too, so if you suffer from cold hands and feet in the winter, spicy foods can help. If you get enough on there, you'll be sweating so much that you'll wonder why you were ever under a blanket to begin with.

Get yourself heated up with the cayenne pepper so you can turn down the heat in your apartment! Spicy foods also jack up your metabolism for 20-30 minutes after you're done eating, so you'll be creating more even of your own heat.

Perhaps most important, however, is that eating spicy foods boosts the production of serotonin and endorphins. This is because the “spicy” taste you detect is actually a pain sensation, and those chemicals alleviate pain and significantly improve your mood.

The spicier your food, the more serotonin your brain makes. Many depression treatments (especially in psychopharmacology) target serotonin — specifically, those famous SSRIs force a higher concentration of serotonin outside your cells.

So, if you want to alleviate some of the depressive symptoms that come along with SAD, creating more serotonin with spicy foods will help! You may be tempted to reach for sugary comfort food during the cold, dark months, but train yourself to turn to something a little spicy. You’ll get a serotonin boost and you’ll avoid the insulin crash that often follows the fast-digesting carbs.

4. Stay warm.

This tip isn't as much for alleviating SAD as it is for dealing with some of the environmental factors that make it seem worse. I hate the cold. I really, truly hate it. If it has to be cold, I want to take advantage of all the comfortable fabrics that are stifling in the heat.

Flannel is a favorite of mine. Flannel pajamas and flannel shirts are old reliable standbys. However, I didn't expect to like flannel sheets so much. They're so soft and warm! I also love my wool socks, although those are only so helpful when your feet are always cold.

I'm also cheap, so I don't heat my apartment any more than needed. Last year, I probably averaged about 66 degrees. This is not ideal for somebody who loves hot summers.

Again, flannel and wool are lifesavers in a cold apartment. I get bundled up in these fabrics, which keep you warm without all the burdensome layers. For me, the worst part of dressing warm is how restrictive all the extra clothing can be. It makes everyday activities harder, like cooking and cleaning. Flannel and wool are warm without all the spare layers, so I barely notice that I’m wearing “winter” clothes. (And if you add in the spicy food mentioned above, you’ll never feel cold!)

5. Go away.

If you can afford it, get out of town for a few days. While I dream of this involving warm weather and sunshine (Cabo, anyone?), it doesn't need to be that elaborate. Do you have a friend a few hours away that you haven't seen in a while? Go visit for the weekend. Have you ever been to that nature reserve that is only 45 minutes from your house? Go check it out on a mild day! Go skiing.

Traveling breaks up your routine of getting up in the cold, dragging yourself to work, shivering next to your space heater for 9 hours, then driving home to your Netflix and hot tea. Mixing up your routine will interrupt the habits that contribute to the depressive thought process.

Depressed thinking is a habit spiral — a self-reinforcing interaction between your environment, your thoughts, and your actions. One of the focuses psychotherapy for depression is to address this spiral and find ways to break it. You can apply this principle to your SAD, as well. One of the best ways to do this is by changing your environment, even temporarily. Plus, seeing an old friend or a beautiful landscape never hurts.

What other suggestions do you have for getting yourself through winter? Is there a tried-and-true remedy for the winter blues that I didn't mention here? Please share it! We're all in this together, and remember that in less than a month, the days will start to get longer!