How to shake the winter blues: 5 tips for SAD sufferers

Still feeling the winter blah? You’re not alone.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that affects people who otherwise have normal mental health, making them experience symptoms of depression during the winter months. (In some rarer cases this is reversed and symptoms appear during the spring or summer.) These symptoms can include anxiety, weird eating patterns (carb craving or weight loss), social withdrawal, insomnia, irritability, decreased interest and focus, lowered sex drive.

Even if you don’t experience full-blown SAD, you probably still feel the effects of winter’s short days. Not everyone gets depressed during winter, but many get lethargic, feeling as if their energy has been sucked away. Not only can that affect your martial arts training, it can bleed into your output at work, your relationships, and your overall enjoyment of life.

Now that we’re reaching the end of February, the next few weeks will be key to kicking the blues. Days will be getting gradually brighter and we’ll be blessed here and there with warmer temperatures. The problem is that people with SAD tend to stay indoors until spring, away from the very things they need to get back to their normal selves. But why wait? To that proactive end, here are some tips to help kick SAD over the coming weeks:

1) Pretend you’re working on your tan

The good weather over the next couple of days provides a perfect opportunity to get outside and get some sunshine. SAD is caused by the reduced amount of sunlight we get during winter, which results in less serotonin and melatonin production in our bodies. That  means you’ve got to get it when you can. Take a walk during your lunch break. Take a “smoke break” even if you don’t smoke–don’t be embarrassed to spend a few minutes just standing outside, soaking up some rays. Even on colder days it’s worth your effort to put on all your winter gear and go for a crisp stroll.

2) Watch your stimulants

When your energy levels are out of whack and you find yourself unable to sleep even though you’re mentally exhausted, it’s time to hack the diet. If you’ve succumbed to the carb impulse (sugar makes us feel happy, I know), it’s time to re-adjust. Cut back on the extra sugars and watch your caffeine consumption. Eliminating or reducing your intake of coffee, tea, chocolate and soda may help you hit the sack and regulate your emotional highs and lows.

3) Break a sweat

Along with diet, exercise is the best way to hack your mood and mental health without having to lie on a couch and tell someone about your father. Exercise gives you a natural “high” and helps regulate sleeping patterns thanks to the production of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. So don’t ditch that Muay Thai class. If your SAD is bad and winter makes you a hermit, try a home workout. Shadowboxing, yoga, calisthenics and jumping rope are all easy activities you can do at home alone with little or no equipment. Use the dynamic warm-ups you learned in your Kombat classes. The important thing is to keep moving.

4) Be around people

For those who experience social withdrawal, this can be the hardest. Start slowly, and avoid social situations that can give you anxiety. If you find you can’t deal with parties and large events during the winter, make the effort to meet one-on-one with close friends for some conversation instead. If that’s not an option, try to put yourself in situations that only require low-investment interaction. Hit the shopping mall and try to enjoy the fact that you’re out and about, and make eye contact with your cashiers. Smile. Try small-talk with strangers–if the conversation goes nowhere, that’s OK. Do your best to not fully retreat into a private hole. Other people are essential to a healthy mental state even though it doesn’t always feel that way.

5) Plan ahead

You know you get like this, so it’s time to start planning for Winter 2011-2012. If you’ve got the cash (and keep in mind that you’ve got a year to save up) invest in a SAD lamp. Light therapy uses lamps with a power of at least 10,000 lux–much greater than the lights in your office–to simulate the benefits of full-spectrum sunlight. It’s easy. Sit in front of the lamp for 30 mins to two hours daily without looking directly into the light source. You can do this while reading, working on the computer, or meditating. Most SAD patients prefer to do this in the morning, which is a great way to start the day on a bright note. And that’s what it’s all about, right?

I’m always interested in simple ways to deal with SAD, so please feel free to share any suggestions you have in the comments below. Don’t let winter win! Let’s do this.

(SAD Cat via nickellis74 on Flickr, Creative Commons)