The holidays are over and winter is in full swing. It’s been ridiculously cold, icy, windy (at this writing) and just generally miserable outside. And well, that can often make us miserable too. It’s probably easy to deduce that the current climate is not especially conducive to psychological well-being. In fact, certain things about winter are counterproductive to our mental health and wellness.
The winter months can be so brutal on mental health that there’s an actual diagnosis associated with it called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. SAD is a form of depression that occurs during colder months and can cause a slew of unpleasant symptoms, including low energy, consistently low mood, and even poor sleeping and eating habits. The disorder is estimated to affect approximately 6 percent of Americans, and don’t forget some parts of the country don’t have a true winter, so 6 percent is a big number.
Another estimated 14 percent of Americans have a lesser version of SAD, colloquially called “the winter blues.” Whether you fall into this percentage of the population or not, you are undoubtedly at least somewhat affected by the current season. As such, it is important to take excellent care of yourself in ways that may seem second nature during warmer months.
First, all of us require vitamin D to help our bodies function properly. Vitamin D helps regulate the immune system, contributes to brain function, and is correlated with mood and energy levels. Research suggests that our levels of serotonin, the primary chemical associated with depression, are correlated with our vitamin D3 levels. This means that how happy we feel takes a direct hit if we don’t have enough of this important vitamin. The way that this relates to winter is that we get most of our vitamin D from sunlight.
In winter, there are fewer hours of sunlight. The sun is less strong and we are less likely to be outside for periods of time, making it more difficult to get adequate levels of vitamin D. People of color are even more likely to have this problem because the more melanin present in the skin, the more difficult it is for the body to absorb vitamin D.
The good news is that this problem is easy enough for everyone to fix: Vitamin D can be taken in the form of a daily supplement. You may also be able to catch enough sunrays even in the winter by being a bit purposeful. For example, using your lunch break to get outside for 15 or 20 minutes instead of staying cooped up at your desk.
While that may not be enough vitamin D in and of itself, that combined with strategic food choices can go a long way. I’m not a nutritionist so I won’t go too in-depth here, but eggs, salmon and tuna are high in vitamin D.
Some other helpful tips for kicking the winter blues include exercising several times per week or doing some sort of regular physical activity. Meditating can also help. In fact, meditation can help with just about anything. If you don’t know how to meditate, YouTube it. There is a surprisingly large quantity of guided meditations available. If you feel especially committed to the practice, there are also centers for meditation around the city that a quick Google search will reveal.
Another important and simple technique is to have something to look forward to: Make plans. Whether it’s for a vacation or just a night out with friends, having something fun or enjoyable to anticipate is an excellent way to keep spirits high. Perhaps most importantly, though, recognize your symptoms. If you don’t realize how you’re affected, you won’t be doing anything to fix it. And if you are suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, these DIY techniques may not be enough and it’s important to notice and accept that too. Short-term therapy during these months could be a great option.
Whatever your experience, there’s no cure quite like the start of spring and those eventual hot summer days. But in the meantime, it’s important to take really good, purposeful care of ourselves. It does make a difference.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist specializing in issues and concerns of the LGBTQ community in addition to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental illnesses. Her private practice, Philadelphia LGBTQ Counseling, offers both individual and couples sessions (www.lgbtphillytherapy.com).
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