By Lynne Brick and Cassandra Vieten
As the holidays approach and the days shorten, there can be a mixture of emotions. One one hand, there is the joy that can come from warm family ties, cozy evenings by the fireplace, a bit more time for introspection, holiday parties and winter activities. It’s the most wonderful time…of the year. Right?
But if you are human like the rest of us, you probably also can expect some difficult times as well. Missing family members who are not present or have passed, feeling less than fulfilled as the year ends, or even some level of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD, also referred to as seasonal depression, affects 1-2% of people, and anywhere between 10-20% of people can experience a milder version of the winter blues. Symptoms include:
- Depressed mood, low self-esteem
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Appetite and weight changes
- Feeling angry, irritable, stressed, or anxious
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Changes in sleeping pattern
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue and lack of energy; reduced sex drive
- Use of drugs or alcohol for comfort
- Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair
Seasonal Affective Disorder is theorized to be caused by less sunlight altering brain function and production of melatonin. If you do start to feel down as the days grow shorter, here are some tips that can help:
Prioritize Connections. It’s no mistake that many traditional gatherings happen in the Winter – throughout history people have probably noticed becoming more isolated or felt down during this time. During this season, make it a point to set aside time for healthy family gatherings, friendships, and social groups.
Work Out Together. Even if you are an expert, schedule a few sessions with a trainer, or work out with a partner. The social boost will amplify the positive effects of exercise. Plus exercise will boost your “happy hormone” production: melatonin, seratonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins.
Have Conversations with a Purpose. In addition to just hanging out, at dinner, at the gym or over coffee you might ask questions that matter, like “what is bringing you joy right now?” or “what are some of your goals for the coming year?”
Try a Digital Detox. While online connections can be very valuable during the winter months, they can also interfere with meaningful connections with people and activities in the real (non-digital) world. Try turning off devices for 24 hours every now and then, and see how it affects your life!
Make New Connections. Maybe you don’t have that many people you can connect with. You might be surprised at how common that is, especially after COVID. You might consider finding a mentor, joining a group of likeminded people you respect and can learn from, joining a group at your church, synagogue or other religious/spiritual community, becoming a volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen
Hack Your Circadian Rhythms
Especially if you live in the far Northern Hemisphere, you may need to add some extra “sunlight” to your days during the winter. Try an alarm clock that awakens you with gradually increasing light, mimicking the sunrise. When the sun is out, go out without sunglasses. Sunlight entering the eyes stimulates the part of your retina that tells your brain to produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter that plays a strong role in regulating mood, emotions, and appetite.
Imbalances in sleep are often the first sign that the rest of your body and mind are moving out of balance. Getting better sleep, with a goal of 7-9 hours per night, is also the first thing to address when we are beginning to feel out of whack.
Establishing a sleep ritual, or a series of calming activities to prepare for bedtime, is a great way to improve sleep quality, and to review the day and prepare for the next one. Lighting a candle, a cup of herbal tea, a little bit of journaling, a bath, a few moments of meditation – when we do the same rituals each night, they begin to let our body know to move into sleep mode.
Pick up the book The Power of When: Learn the Best Time to Do Everything by Michael Breus, a psychologist and sleep expert. You’ll be amazed at how your circadian rhythms work and how timing your patterns can have a profoundly positive impact on your life!
Helpful at any time of year, filling your plate with fresh whole foods is especially important during the winter months. Eat colorful foods, that are seasonal and locally grown when possible. Use the plate method, aspiring toward ½ of your plate being veggies, ¼ lean protein, ¼ complex carbohydrates, and just a little bit each of sugar, good fats and/or dairy.
Bundle up and hit your local farmer’s market. Chop vegetables at the beginning of your week, and make soup stock so that throwing together a nutrient-rich soup during the week is a snap.
Consider herbal or botanical supplements to support your immune system and gut health.
In conclusion, it’s ok to feel sad during the holidays and winter season. Be sure to reach out and let people know how you are feeling, and if you have feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness. If your mood doesn’t seem to lift very often, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. Connect with HR to see what support is available for your team, go to your primary care doctor, or call 988 – the new mental health emergency line – if you are in a crisis.
You can also find lots of ways to support your mental well-being at the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation’s website here: https://www.johnwbrickfoundation.org/build/