As I write this, it is getting to the end of January – firmly in the midst of what is, so far, a fairly bleak and dreary winter here in Southern Ontario. As we get to the end of the month without significant snow or sun to brighten things, I find that I am having more and more conversations about the effect these short, dark days have on all of us.
I’m pretty convinced that we are all more sensitive to light than we think. Like most things, it is likely a spectrum. Some people get well and truly non-functional without light, but all of us should take heed and adjust some things in the shorter days of winter. You don’t need to be diagnosed with full-on SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) to feel the effects of the winter, and I think it is smart for all of us to make adjustments for the lack of light in this season. There is evidence (largely from studies with prisoners who got very little light) that reduced exposure to sunlight simply reduces neural activity in the brain – in everyone! So maybe we should pay attention to this, and offset it where we can.
As a mental health therapist, I’ve had my fair share of clients who struggle with SAD. It is rarely pronounced, but it is extremely common in just a mild lowering of energy and clarity. Personally, I have certainly struggled with it in the past, but luckily there are a few fairly solid ways to compensate.
There are biological connections to the ‘winter blues’ and therefore it ought to be taken seriously. SAD can vastly affect mood and energy for months, and carry with it a real difficulty in recalibrating that can last all the way into the summer.
SAD is essentially caused by an absence of natural sunlight, so one of the most effective ways to manage SAD is through light therapy. Even if you are going to Mexico for a week, it’s really not enough to last you the several months of darkness (though that’s a wonderful way to break up the dull winter!) Ongoing light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light box for a certain amount of time each day, usually in the morning. The light box emits bright, full-spectrum light that mimics natural outdoor light, which can help regulate the body’s internal clock and boost mood. I personally swear by one of these things, which these days you can get for about a hundred dollars. I used mine daily, starting when the clocks change back in November, and though I can only anecdotally say that it seems to help, I do notice when I have forgotten to use it.
So light is the main help, but it’s not going to be enough to make significant amounts of Vitamin D, so if you are not already supplementing, I’ll mention to you that the government of Canada now states that it is an essential supplement for everyone in Canada, from September to April, simply because of the latitude in which we live. In the summer, Vitamin D is made via your skin’s exposure to direct sunlight. But even on a bright, sunny, winter day, if you were outside sunbathing naked, apparently because of the glancing rays of the sun, you will not create enough Vitamin D. And some experts theorize that this is the single whole cause of the winter blues – and possibly – many other forms of depression!
So just take the vitamin D already. It’s not expensive, and you need much more than you might think you’re getting from the fortified carton of milk. The standard recommended dosage is 1000 IU and I take triple that. It’s not about what you take, but what you absorb. You can get the pill or the drops in supplement form, but you can also do it the Scandinavian way, and drink a shot of good ole’ cold liver oil every day, or eat major amounts of fish and fish oils. You likely won’t get too much (though it is possible, since it is fat soluble), so err on the side of abundance on this one.
Exercise is also a great way to combat SAD. Not only does it release endorphins, which can improve mood, but it also helps regulate sleep patterns. We all know about this one, so I won’t harp on it.
It’s also important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. This can be tough during the winter when the days are shorter and the nights are longer, but sticking to a regular bedtime and wake-up time can help regulate the body’s internal clock and improve mood.
Another factor is that most people just tend to stay indoors and get far more sedentary in the winter. So even though it is cliché mental health advice, it still holds that you ought to get outside and/ or just do fun things that are not staring at a screen and eating corn chips. Bundle up and go for night walks, make the extra effort to find activities, classes, groups and social events.
Many people who know me know that I love Icelandic culture. One of the things I love is their approach to winter. It gets even darker there than it is here, and generally, people in Iceland just really lean into the arts. People make and play music and art and everyone has a creative hobby that they are excited about. I think it is wonderful to consider that winter is just the time when we write novels and paint. It’s like we can gather up our inspiration from the summer, and really let our healthy introversion find expression in the winter. Not for everyone, of course, but that is part of how I manage to look forward to January.
We all need to be extra generous with our self-care in the dark winter months. For me, that gets more and more necessary as I age!
You don’t have to be suffering profoundly with a clinical case of SAD for you to want to improve your mood and energy throughout the winter. I really think those of us who live in northern areas just have to consider a whole other stance to life in the winter – our bodies are more in tune with the natural world than we generally notice, and we’ve been adjusting to winter for a very long time. Give yourself some help!
And please, if you find you are really having a hard time coping – like always – talk about it and listen to what you may need. It’s natural to have a little less spark in these grey chilly days, but there are ways to stoke that invisible fire inside us.