The commute to work is dark. The trip home, also dark. It’s freezing, and everyone around you is sneezing and coughing.
When winter settles in, our daily routines can start to feel like an oppressive slog. Seasonal mood changes are normal, with 14% of the adult U.S. population feeling the “winter blues,” as doctors call it. Stress associated with the holidays, finances, family and the start of a new year are compounded by having to dress like an Arctic explorer just to get out the door. Dreaming of June beaches bums us out, naturally.
For 6% of the population the problem is even more serious–they suffer from seasonal affective disorder that makes getting out of bed a feat of its own in the winter months. While the blues might make you grumble on your way to work, SAD makes it feel impossible to get there on time.
How can we combat the elements and stay productive while the winter rages on? Here are a few ideas:
Our circadian rhythms are out of balance when natural light is scarce, causing disruptions in sleep patterns and mood. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends lights therapy as the first line of treatment for seasonal depression. Find a workspace you can retreat to a few times a day near a window, or invest in a light box that simulates the sun’s rays. Be patient: The NIH says this treatment requires 30 minutes of daily exposure over a few weeks, for most people.
You’re already resolving to get healthier this year, and as added the motivation to get to the gym, it will improve your mood. Exercise gets you out of the stuffy environments of the white-collar world and out of your own head, with a flood of endorphins and self-confidence. Even a 20-minute walk changes your brain for more happiness. Bonus points if you can find an outdoor activity, like hiking or skiing, that raises your heart rate while charging your mental solar battery.
Remember those lunch breaks we’re always nagging you about? Guess what: They apply for winter mood sufferers, too. It’s tempting to stay inside and order delivery within the warmth of your office, but taking a lunch break–or multiple shorter breaks throughout the day–give the double-dose of movement and natural light. Get creative with phone calls or walking meetings, and grab a few fellow wilting coworkers for group brainstorming excursions to the news stand.
Hibernating from society for the next three months is tempting, but will end up depressing you even more. Making the extra effort to connect in person means more feel-good hormones. “When people connect physically–through a handshake, a pat on the back or a high five–oxytocin is released, promoting feelings of attachment and trust, facilitating greater collaboration among team members,” Lisa Evans writes. All of those people you promised you’d get in touch with after the holidays are over are waiting.
If your mood is more than a doldrums and impacts your life in serious ways–as true SAD is a form of major depressive disorder–talk to a doctor or therapist. Feeling down is normal, but feeling overwhelmed by hopeless feelings for an extended time is not.