SAD in the Winter: Get Outside and Feel Better
In the midst of a North Country winter, you might be experiencing the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. You may have low motivation and be tempted to withdraw from social interaction... it might feel like your own personal hibernation. Some people dismiss this as simply “the winter blues”. It might be, but it also may be more than that. Shorter winter days in the North Country result in a decrease in daylight, and low temperatures often keep us confined to the indoors.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. People affected by SAD feel it beginning in late fall and waning in early spring.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can include:
1) Low energy, daytime sleepiness or excessive nighttime sleeping
2) Overeating resulting in weight gain
3) Withdrawing from social interaction, i.e. wanting to be alone or not wanting to go out.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you are not alone! As of 2000, 4-6% of people experience seasonal affective disorder, while an additional 10-20% of people have experienced some form of mild Seasonal Affective Disorder.
It’s easy to lock yourself inside, draw the blinds, curl up in bed and pray for warmer days. Those who experience SAD know how hard it is to resist the urges to withdraw completely and how daunting winter can seem; especially here in the North Country where winter lasts so long. But did you know nature can help ease the suffering you might experience during the winter months?
It is common in winter to leave for work before the sun rises and return home until after it sets, limiting your exposure to sunlight. One trigger for Seasonal Affective Disorder is the decreased daylight in winter. Shortened days and the low temperatures limit vitamin D intake. The decrease in sunlight leads to a decrease in serotonin produced in your brains. Did you know serotonin is a chemical your brain produces that helps regulate your moods? It’s often referred to as “the happy chemical”. That said, combating SAD can be as simple as opening the curtains in your home or taking a work-break outside. Making a conscious effort daily to expose yourself to as much sunlight as possible in the winter can increase your overall mood.
As a college student, I live in a dorm room and most days I spend the entire day with my shade drawn and lights on. I didn’t realize how much this affected me until I started researching Seasonal Affective Disorder. With my shade closed I felt like the days were so short while in reality, I was making them shorter for myself by keeping myself cut off from the outside. Now, during the day I make an effort to turn off my artificial light and let the sunshine into my room. If nothing else it helps me notice that every day we have a little bit more daylight. Seeing this daily increase in light makes me feel hopeful and happy. It reminds me that winter doesn’t last forever and it motivates me to keep going because tomorrow there will be even more sunlight.
Being in nature has been scientifically shown to both improve mood and reduce stress. A study in Japan in 2011 compared the stress levels of people who spent most of their time in the city vs. people who spent most of their time in a forest. This study found that people who spent more time in the forest had lower cortisol levels and decreased heart rates.
So we know nature is good for us! But how do we make sure we are still getting outside during the winter? We exercise outside! Exercising outside has been coined “green exercise” and is recommended for all seasons but can be especially effective for people with SAD. Exercise is a great tool for boosting one’s mood as it leads to elevated serotonin and endorphin levels. Green exercise offers natural light and natural elements, and working out in the gym just doesn’t compare.
Exercising can feel like a daunting task and going outside in the winter to exercise even more so. That is why we simply suggest starting with spending 5 minutes outside daily, walking or partaking in an enjoyable activity. The time spent outside can be increased gradually as motivation and energy levels improve. This seemingly small amount of time can have an impressive impact on SAD symptoms.
On nice winter days, there are many activities to choose from that can make exercise feel more like play than work! Here are some suggestions:
1) Go for a walk or run with a friend
2) Build a snowman or make snow angels
3) Go snowshoeing or sledding
4) Try cross country skiing
5) Go ice skating - outside!
6) Go snowboarding or alpine skis
7) Hike your favorite mountain in the winter
While writing this, I tried many of these suggestions and now incorporate them into my everyday routine. When I’m outside, walking, hiking and having fun, I notice an increase in my overall mood. I’m simply happier outside. Everyone, even those who do not experience SAD can benefit from making more of an effort to get outside during the winter and enjoy the many benefits nature has to offer.
These are just a few small ways that nature can help relieve some effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, Seasonal Affective Disorder can be treated in a variety of different ways and it is best to consult your doctor about the best treatment for you. Although it is not a common topic of conversation, many people here in the North Country struggle through the winter months and you are not alone.
Keep an eye out for upcoming Nature Up North events and join us for guided nature experiences!
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255