Winter Blues

I was thinking about the holidays and the winter season and how I always get stressed and moody.   Is it the pressure of the holidays?  The year in review?  Looming tax season? Is it all of that as well as the addition of long hours of darkness and the lack of sun? I am a person who loves sun and outdoor activities. I love being warm.  I love everything that summer brings; hot days, long nights, tanned skin, less clothing, warm lakes, and pools.  I’ve tried several times to move to a warmer climate because I just can’t seem to get through winter without the blues.  

What exactly are the Winter Blues?  They are generally characterized by significant downturn of mood, loss of interest and general apathy, fatigue, sleeping longer hours, overeating, and boredom. The reason why they are called the Winter Blues or more clinically known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), is that it just occurs only in the winter months and it goes away in Spring and Summer.  If you tend to get this way every year, you are known to have SAD, but if you just feel this way occasionally it’s considered the Winter Blues.  Either way, no one likes the feeling of being down in the dumps all winter long. 

So what can we do? There are many people who take advantage of the winter here in Spokane by going skiing, sledding, snow shoeing, and ice skating.  Being outdoors when there is sunlight can help tremendously.  Our bodies need about 15 minutes of unprotected sun time to simulate Vitamin D, however if you live in some of the northern most regions of the country, it's impossible to produce Vitamin D from the sun because the sun never gets high enough in the sky for its ultraviolet B rays to penetrate the atmosphere.  I would suggest an artificial sunlamp.  Light therapy is known to be helpful for mood disorders.  “In many cases, light therapy can replace medication for people with seasonal and nonseasonal depression, bipolar depression, and depression during pregnancy,” said Michael Terman, PhD, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Reset Your Inner Clock.“ 

Even if your not getting the D, you can still boost your mood and keep the blues at bay by being active.  Exercise has been shown to increase seratonin in the body.  Serotonin is known as a natural mood balancer. .  By being outdoors and active in the winter, you are boosting your bodies seratonin levels and hopefully getting some good Vitamin D.   However, I don’t particularly like winter sports because I hate being cold and I never have the right gear to stay warm.  Cost, time, and interest seem to be my obstacles.  That leaves me with indoor alternatives.  I practice Pilates almost everyday.  Last year I tried a combination of Pilates, Yoga, and Barre.  I also took a lot of vitamin D and kept eating healthy, being careful not to load up too much on carbohydrates which we crave more during the winter but tend to make us feel more sluggish. Even though I took care of myself, I still managed to get those Winter Blues. 

What I realized is I fight the urge to hibernate.  I feel like hibernating is unproductive.  It’s 4:00pm in the afternoon, it’s dark and I want to get under a blanket with a good book or binge watch some TV on Netflix, but in my mind I feel that is a waste of time and I should be doing something to stay productive.  So I give myself little winter projects to keep my mind off the darkness and boredom.  What ends up happening is that I create a whole new set of stresses because I’ve busied myself just for the fear of stillness.  The mind chatter gets going and now I am fighting the urge to hibernate and stressed out to get these new tasks done. No wonder I get the blues. 

So this year, I am giving in.  I am hibernating.  I am choosing to do what our bodies are meant to do, slow down.  I preach over and over again about the importance of listening to our bodies and finding balance, not pushing too far and turning off our internal dialogue.  My own words are ringing in my ears.   Guess what, we need the winters, just like the plants and animals do.  There is research that says people with SAD are just feeling the affects of an “evolutionary left over.”  Our bodies worked to conserve more during the winter by slowing down when food was scarce and we needed the body fat to stay warm. 

Our minds are what keep us from hibernating.  They like to stay busy and have projects and be thinking and coming up with solutions and sometimes creating new problems to solve.  We have learned to live by a clock and not by our internal rhythms.  Many of us avoid the changes we feel because we live in a world of artificial daylight. We have fought to stay up later and still get up early and it’s the hardest thing to do in the dead of winter, especially for those of us who are only getting 8 hours of natural sunlight.  If we are part of this planet and all living things why are we the only species that doesn’t change with the seasons? I have been fighting it for years.  It’s not working. 

What if we took that time in winter to slow down?  I do know our bodies aren’t supposed to be in constant go all year long.  It’s just not possible.  What if we curled up under that blanket and read a good book?  What if we went to bed at 9pm and got up at 7am and slept 10 hours?  What is so bad about that?  Now I am not saying we should all sleep and eat our way through winter.  No one wants to look at the scale in the Spring and feel daunted by the task of shedding heavy winter calories, but we can do things that slow us down that are still healthy.  Instead of an extreme high intensity exercise class, we could take a restorative yoga class.  We can eat seasonal food and drink warm beverages filled with healthy benefits like a good bone broth.  For our minds, meditating can be wonderful ways to get in tune with ourselves and can elevate your mood just as much as exercise.  So I am trying some of these things.  I am taking it slower, I am resting more.  The urge to do and stay productive is hard to avoid, but I think I will emerge in the Spring happier and healthier. 

What an amazing gift to those of us who actually get to live in four seasons.  We have the opportunity to recharge, to rest, to be still, quiet, and calm.  

So for those of you who are like me and maybe aren’t enthusiastic about winters and don’t engage in winter sports, be thankful we have this time to rest, relax, and recharge.