“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Depression is something that has likely touched all of us. Often the holidays or the few months after the holidays are an extra challenging time for us all but especially those that struggle with being estranged from family. Seasonal depression or “Seasonal affective disorder” is a mood disorder subset where we are uncharacteristically depressed (or our depression becomes worse) during winter months. Common symptoms in the winter are generally being more depressed and sad, overeating, having less energy and sleeping more than usual. We might also feel unmotivated, bored, apathetic and irritable. Vice versa, during the summer, people can often experience heightened anxiety due to the increase in activity, both personally and witnessed throughout the environment.
It mostly effects people during the winter months and this is attested by recorded data on people that live in colder and darker geographical regions of the world such as Alaska and generally anywhere the farther you get from the equator. The peak of this seasonal disorder is generally in January and February in the northern hemisphere and July and August in the southern hemisphere. Of course, naturally, it’s not just humans that experience changes during the various seasons, but animals, trees and insects do as well.
In general, activity is diminished across the board and we all, out of necessity, go into various states of hibernation. It’s nature’s way of signaling us to slow down, rest and take time to recharge. The darkness all but forces us indoors, inwards, both physically, mentally and emotionally. By nature’s design, when it gets dark in general but especially when it occurs earlier in the day, our body starts producing more melatonin which signals us to go to rest and go to sleep. Because we are indoors more, and things tend to quiet down, we have more time to ruminate and focus on unhealthy or irrational thoughts in general.
Additionally, the hormones responsible for keeping us happy and awake, namely, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine often decrease. Whether it’s the lack of vitamin D or the extra time to sit around and ruminate, it’s easy to see why experiencing some level of sadness during the winter months is incredibly normal and natural. A lot of our depression, anxiety and irritability at this time of year could very well stem from our body not having it’s needs met when it signals us to slow down.
Often, either we don’t listen or are simply unable to listen because we still have to go to work and do the same day to day tasks all while navigating an innate change in our body’s working system. We often must simply go easier, gently and more slowly with ourselves and each other. Most of the following ideas are so simple, we all know them, but I find I just have to stay consistent.
Natural ways to Address Seasonal Depression
Listen to Our Body and Cues From Nature
Take the time we need to rest. This means not feeling guilty about using winter as a time to relax and not worry about projects or to do lists for a long while. That looks different for every person.
We can open up the shades as often as possible. Get outside as often as possible during daylight hours to soak up the sun. If neither is possible, we could look into using environmentally friendly light therapy. Gentle twinkling led lights surprisingly do wonders for me around my living room at night.
Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules that we inhale in abundance in certain environments. They are especially available in abundance around mountains, waterfalls, beaches, during rain or thunderstorms and even in our showers. Negative Ions are molecules that have gained or lost an electron. They are created in nature as air molecules break apart due to sunlight, radiation, and moving air and water. Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate many of the seasonal issues we experience. The beach in the winter or sitting near other bodies of water are like heaven to me in the winter.
Vitamin D Supplement
Vitamin D is critical to humans and so critical in fact that it’s the only vitamin that the body produces by itself in any relevant capacity. Using cholesterol and UVB rays from the sun, the body is able to produce as much as 10,000 IU to 20,000 IU of vitamin D3 in just 30 minutes of natural sun exposure. Warming ourselves by a window on a cold winter day may feel good, and even help elevate our mood, but it’s not going to help you with your vitamin D production specifically because UVB rays don’t penetrate glass. A deficit in vitamin D has been linked to everything from depression and heart disease to an increased risk for cancer and osteoporosis. It’s very hard to overdose on Vitamin D but megadoses, and taking 60,000 international units (IU) a day of vitamin D for several months has been shown to cause toxicity in adults. Vitamin D supplements are especially important for infants and children through age 4. Many scientists theorize that the general rise in anxiety, depression and mood/brain disorders in children could be linked to people getting outside less due to technology (smart phones, increased internet use) and not receiving their recommended daily value of vitamin D. Again, we find being in nature, going for walks and just sitting in the sun on clear winter days is one of our best allies in fighting mood disorders.
Often, the winter and cold weather can cause increased pain in our joints, muscles and body overall. Yet another signal for us to rest however of course, when we rest too much, that can make this aspect worse. When our pain is worse, it releases more cortisol in our body (to signal our body to try and focus on/heal that part which is hurting) which increases the inflammation and pain, which increases our irritability and it’s a vicious and lengthy cycle. I’ve found anti-inflammatory herbs really can make all the difference for me which would be mainly herbs like turmeric and ginger.
Serotonin and Vitamin B Boosting Diet
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter released by the pineal gland of the brain. It is most well-known for its positive effect on mood, but it also helps to regulate digestion and body temperature. For this reason, many people with depression often but not always have gastrointestinal or sleep issues. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps the body produce serotonin so it should stand that eating more foods with tryptophan could help regulate or even increase serotonin levels. These are going to be foods such as spinach, seeds/nuts, beans, oats, avocados, grapes, oranges, peaches, pineapples but there are many more. Vitamin B, especially B12 is another vitamin that is often low in the modern diet but our mood and energy utterly depends on it. These are mostly found in meat products but as a vegetarian, I rely on fortified cereals or supplements. Comforting and warm cereals and oatmeals with cinnamon (also anti-inflammatory) and almond or oat milk are a staple for me but especially in the winter.
Listening to Music, Singing, Dancing or Playing an Instrument
This one is fairly straight forward but the power of music, singing and dancing is often such an underrated tool to help our general wellbeing. For me personally, there are few things that increase my mood as much as music and dancing. Our ancestors had a song for everything and it was a constant aspect of their collective lives. I try to avoid depressing music and put on upbeat music often during the winter months and not necessarily loud music, just something upbeat yet soft and melodic. Although I will say that sometimes a good cry to sad music can be very carthartic and I don’t try to fight that if that’s what I’m truly feeling into. I just make sure to consciously move on from it as soon as I can.
Exercise and Walking
Research consistently shows that exercise is nature’s natural anti-depressant. This is because it increases serotonin and endorphins which both strongly effect our moods. Walking in particular is low impact.
Looking at Natural Settings and Nature
Looking at natural settings, animals and nature has proven benefits of uplifting our mood. Even when watching nature shows, or viewing pictures of natural scenes, our brains exhibit similar anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effects as if we were actually there.
Meditation and Stretching
Using meditation and stretching in our daily or weekly routines has proven time and again to be potent stress relievers. They are also somewhat stationary activities that can be adapted and implemented for a wide variety of age groups and abilities. Quiet time doing absolutely nothing is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves even when it feels boring.
Spending More Quality Time With Family and Friends
We can try to spend more quality time with family and friends. The important phrase there is quality and technology often unfortunately gets in the way of this. While this is important throughout the year, doing activities like playing board or card games or just having dinner more often in the winter months can go a long way when we need it the most.
The value of laughter can’t be overstated. Laughter releases endorphins which have been proven to elevate our mood, relieve stress and even improve our immune system. It’s important to reach out and surround ourselves with people who just “get” us and have the ability to understand our own humor or make us laugh. If this isn’t possible in the immediate moment or situation, we can seek out comedians or internet clips that we find comical. The internet, like any tool can be used for good when we use it in healthy ways.
Recognizing the Subtle Power of Touch
The subtle power of touch can’t be overstated either. It has long reaching positive effects on our mood and general wellbeing. When I’m feeling sad, I know it might sound incredibly corny, but I count out 9 hugs throughout tough days. I intentionally and quite randomly will hug my children or other loved ones, and not just a quick pat hug but an affirming hug that says I’m here. When we do this intentionally, we can often quickly realize how rare it is to actually get a nice hug and why they’re so important to our mental health.
Snuggling up with our pets is a wonder. There’s nothing better on a cold dreary day than snuggling up with my dog or cat on the couch or floor with a blanket.
Putting Away Our Phones
Putting away our phones and not having a care in the world (as much as we reasonably can). Social media is subtly addicting and while the trade offs can be wonderful just simply for the amount of interesting material there is to read, it feels healthier for me when I can truly put it down and away without worrying. It can be exhausting having a thousand different images, words, clips and sound bytes thrown at us daily. I find just putting my phone on airplane and spacing out is a solace like no other in this ever more connected world.
Investing in a New and Relaxing Hobby
I know that depression often lends to not being interested in anything. It’s a chore just getting out of bed. We often feel empty and everything feels pointless. Yet, we can sometimes still try to find something new that’s just on the edges of our interest. For me in my darkest days, this was and is trying a new instrument, painting/drawing, taking a language course, sewing a blanket, trying a new recipe… anything to distract myself.
In summary, nobody knows you better than you and what you need to stay happy and healthy but these are my own tricks that get me through the winter and sometimes that’s all we can do, get through it and that’s ok. Sometimes, just being able to take the edge off is everything. All we can do is do the best with what we’re given and the best with the knowledge and tools we have available.