During my senior year of college, I was in the midst of finals, in the depths of winter, and, like many other students, was under an extreme level of stress. I would spend eight hours or more in a dimly lit room studying with no breaks and minimal sleep. Soon the all-nighters, Adderall, and high level of pressure took a toll on my mind and body. I became fatigued, overly tired, and was unmotivated. I thought that maybe my dreary mood was caused by my lackluster work environment, so I began to seek out open spaces with brighter lights. Though obnoxiously bright, I had a fluorescent light in my room, and when I would study next to it, I’d feel a bit better. Studying by the window on sunny days also improved my mood. It was as if my body was trying to tell me that something was missing. After finals, I went to a psychologist who suggested that I may be experiencing the “winter blues” — also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines seasonal affective disorder as a form of seasonal depression that affects people during the late fall and winter, but typically subsides during the warmer months. Typical symptoms of SAD are social withdrawal, lack of energy, hypersomnia, overeating, craving carbs, and gaining weight. Other symptoms of SAD are those of major depressive disorder, which include feelings of hopelessness, general depression, difficulty concentrating, sleep issues, and/or thoughts of suicide.
Some people are more at risk of SAD than others. According to the NIH, women are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men. Young adults are also more likely to develop SAD. This is not surprising, especially for young adults who carry a lot of uncertainty as they transition into adulthood. The uncertainty of your future, whether professional or academic, can seriously raise your anxiety levels, therefore increasing your risk of SAD. Other risk factors include family history and distance from the equator.
It’s no surprise that SAD is more prevalent during the fall and winter. Fall and winter days are much shorter, which results in less sunlight. Scientists agree that SAD is caused by a lack of sun exposure because the sun’s rays give off vitamin D, an important element that our body needs to function properly. Spending less time in the sun causes our vitamin D levels to decrease, which puts individuals at risk for depression and other physical illnesses. The shorter days also result in increased darkness, an effect that stimulates the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. NIH states that those who suffer from SAD may overproduce melatonin, therefore leading to sleepiness and lethargy.
Typically, SAD lamps have been shown to treat seasonal affective disorder as they mimic the sun’s rays and trigger vitamin D production in your skin. The downside is these lamps are very expensive and are not a realistic purchase for many. With that in mind, below are some natural, inexpensive alternatives to combat those winter blues.
Exercise has a very positive impact on both your physical and mental health. According to NIH, “exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.” The endorphins your body releases after exercising can increase mood and overall well being. Experts believe that this can be achieved by doing cardio for at least 30 minutes. From personal experience, I can definitely vouch for this claim. Going on a run may seem like the last thing on your mind during arctic winters, but trust me, it helps.
If working up a sweat on the treadmill isn’t your thing, then yoga may be a better fit for you. Yoga is a less strenuous form of exercise that soothes the body, mind, and soul. It is proven to have a positive impact on mental health and improves symptoms of depression and anxiety. Psychology Today lists some of Yoga’s many health benefits: stress relief, increased concentration, calmness, and reduced muscle tension. I first started yoga when I was diagnosed with ADHD a couple of years ago. Yoga has not only improved my focus, but also my general outlook on life. Don’t feel like dropping change on a yoga class at your local studio? There are also a variety of free yoga tutorials online, like this one led by Jessamyn Stanley.
The NIH lists vitamin D as a treatment for SAD. vitamin D, or “sunshine vitamin,” can be obtained via sun exposure or natural supplements. Studies show mixed results of the effects of vitamin D on mental health, but it’s definitely an option worth exploring.
Vitamin D supplements are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at your local pharmacy. Spending time outside is also a great way to soak up vitamin D. Even on a cloudy day, your body can still benefit from the sun’s rays. Switch out your Ubers for a long stroll. Walk to your favorite lunch spot instead of hitting up Seamless. If you’ve been sitting in a cubicle all day, take a walk in the park to clear your mind. The fresh air and sun’s rays can rejuvenate you, especially if you’re exhausted from staring at a screen all day.
Besides being cute and cuddly, pets also have a positive effect on mental health. The Mental Health Institute states that simply being in the presence of a pet has a calming effect and can reduce anxiety. Pets can also bring people together, leading to increased socialization and friendships. This can be very useful for people suffering from the social withdrawal symptom of SAD.
In case your apartment building restricts owning pets, plants are always a great alternative. Many plants are super low maintenance and have been proven to have a positive effect on mental health. Psychology Today suggests that having a plant at home or in a workspace can increase productivity, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve well–being. Similar to owning pets, caring for plants gives you a sense of routine and provides fulfillment and purpose.
Disclaimer: If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD and your condition does not improve, please seek out the help of a licensed professional.