Most of America awoke on the first Sunday morning in November and eventually realized their clocks where no longer accurate. Thanks to the end of Daylight Saving Time, most everyone’s in-home and automotive clocks were off by an hour – we were certain of that.
But were they an hour ahead or an hour behind?
“Spring forward; fall back” – how many of us did this silly little jingle in our heads? Silly or not, it likely worked. “Time to fall back,” we immediately concluded before turning all our clocks back an hour and bracing ourselves for the darker, shorter days that lie ahead.
This common jingle which provides such valuable, on-the-fly information twice each year – spring forward; fall back – could certainly extend in meaning to describe the mood changes millions of Americans experience annually as days shorten and we find ourselves returning home from work in the dark.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, as many as 10 to 20 percent of all Americans experience at least a mild form of an affliction called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. A type of depression that’s related to the changing of the seasons, SAD typically begins and ends at the same times each year.
“The most common type of this mood disorder occurs during the winter months,” said Angelos Halaris, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Loyola Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “SAD is thought to be related to a chemical imbalance in the brain, brought on by the lack of light due to winter’s shorter days and typically overcast skies.”
Many who experience SAD may feel overly tired, a lack of motivation and even have trouble getting out of bed. Other symptoms include anxiety, a lack of concentration, sadness, irritability and social withdrawal.
For the estimated 500,000 people in the U.S. who experience a more severe level of SAD, psychotherapy, light therapy and perhaps even antidepressant medication can often be necessary. For the remaining who suffer a milder form of SAD, often referred to as “the Winter Blues,” simple lifestyle and home remedies can effectively keep the blues at bay.
Researchers and psychology experts recommend the following strategies to thwart the potential onset of SAD this winter:
- Get outside. Take a long walk, take your lunch to a nearby park, or simply take a moment to bask in the glow of the day. Each day this fall and winter, spend at least 30 minutes outdoors. According to Halaris, avoid wearing sunglasses during these periods of time, and if weather permits, expose the skin of your arms to the sun.
- Brighten your environment. Open your blinds during daylight hours, sit closer to bright windows both at home and in the office, and consider trimming back shrubs and tree branches that block sunlight. The goal, of course, is to further increase your exposure to natural sunlight. Armed with advice from your physician, you may even consider purchasing a high-intensity light box specifically designed for SAD therapy.
- Exercise. Following general health guidelines that suggest you exercise 30 minutes each day can help combat the effects of SAD. According to Halaris, physical activity releases endorphins and other brain chemicals that can help you feel better and more energetic, relieving both stress and anxiety. In addition, being more fit can lift your self-esteem and, hence, your mood.
- Go green at work – and home. Multiple studies have suggested that greener work environments lead to greater productivity, better workplace satisfaction and, yes, happier workers. Greenery can also make one’s home environment less stressful and more relaxing.
- Take good care of yourself. “Exercise works. Having replenished relationships matter. Doing things that you find rewarding and fulfilling is helpful as is attending religious services,” said Dr. Thomas Nutter, an assistant professor, psychiatry and neurosciences, also at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “Getting plenty of sleep and taking care of yourself works. We all have our limits, and learning to live within those limits is important.
Again, these strategies are most effective in warding off mild cases of SAD, or Winter Blues. If your seasonal depression is reoccurring, lasts two weeks or more, or you have thoughts of suicide, it’s time to get help.
“SAD is a diagnosable mental health disorder that may require treatment,” said Douglas Jacobs, M.D., executive director of Screening for Mental Health and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “If you regularly experience a significant, lasting downturn of mood when the weather gets colder and daylight lessons, then you should consider consulting a psychiatrist or other health professional to discuss your symptoms.”