If you are one of the 4-6% of Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or one of the 10-20% with mild S.A.D. (American Academy of Family Physicians), you already know that October can be a scary time.
Whether or not you’ve ever received a diagnosis of S.A.D., chances are you’ve felt a touch of the “winter blues” before and are aware of some changes in your mood and energy. As the hours of sunlight decrease and temperatures drop, many people begin to experience some malaise, sleepiness, carbohydrate cravings and other symptoms of depression. For those who live in Northern latitudes, rates of S.A.D. are significantly higher (Rosen et. al., Psychiatry Research, Vol 31, Iss 2, February 1990).
As I write this from the Philadelphia suburbs on the precipice of true fall weather, a mild sense of dread overcomes me. I already miss days in the ocean, paddle boarding at Marsh Creek, and cooking out with friends. Winter changes our lifestyle, and those feel-good pursuits seem so far away once we’ve packed up the flip-flops for the season.
The good news is, while our lifestyle may change for the winter months, we still have plenty of opportunities to generate those summer feelings year-round.
Endorphins- a group of hormones that act as neurotransmitters, sending signals in the brain- are a key factor in maintaining feelings of happiness and calm. The body is complex, as is the psyche, and there is no “magic bullet” for happiness. But if you create a winter routine that incorporates endorphin-boosting activities, and pair that with solid nutrition and good rest, you will fare much better.
The best part? Endorphins are free, don’t require a prescription, and you don’t even need health insurance to access them.
Below are three ways to boost your endorphins this winter:
- Sunlight. While the optimal amount of sun exposure varies by region, skin type and other factors, research points to many benefits of daily sunlight, including decreased susceptibility to disease and stronger bones (Mead, Environ Health Perspectives. 2008 Apr; 116(4): A160–A167). Hours of daily winter sunlight are minimal in our region. It becomes more difficult- and more critical- to get some daily exposure to the sun. A mid-day walk is probably your best bet if you work, because the sun may not even be out before you go to work or when you get home. On the weekends, consider a hike, some gardening or winter yard work, a nature walk with friends, or a stroll around the neighborhood with your dog. Light therapy lamps are another option, and have shown significant impact on symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but please discuss with your physician first. Light therapy lamps can be dangerous for people with bipolar disorder and people taking certain medications, and may have contraindications.
- Sex. Consensual sex in a safe context can trigger a flood of endorphins and other internal chemicals that create feelings of calm, happiness and bliss. Truth, though: Mid-winter, most people feel less than sexy. It can be tough to work up “the mood” when you’re cold, run-down and sleepy. I propose that you consider sex (or self-love ) an integral part of your self-care plan, and commit to it with the discipline you’d apply to your work out schedule, your bill-paying routine or your grocery shopping. No one wants to feel like sex is a chore, but like so many things that are good for us, sometimes we just have to plan for it to make it happen. Have you ever felt like you were “not in the mood” to workout, but worked out anyway? And did you ever regret that you did?
- Exercise. Exercise can reduce stress, improve sleep, and increase immune function, much of which can be attributed to endorphins. If you get winter aches and pains, exercise is one of your best bets to combat them, as the benefits of increased mobility paired with the pain-relieving properties of endorphins can make you feel like a new person. You might be rolling your eyes right now, as so many sources spout exercise as a panacea for what ails you, and you’re still trying to figure out, “When can I fit it in?!” I have to be honest: I struggle with that daily. We get a lot of advice to create a routine, to get to bed earlier, to schedule it in as a commitment, but when life happens (and when that life happens to include a child and a full-time job), it is quite literally not the most urgent priority. What works for me right now is wearing a FitBit and aiming for more than 10,000 steps daily. This means lots of funny-looking bursts of walking in circles around my office during the day, and it means walking to the bank at my lunch break, or going downstairs to talk to a coworker. It is hard to fit it in. But I feel the difference, and I have to encourage you to try your hardest to make a plan that works for you. Because exercise is just that good for us. (*Caveat: There is such thing as too much of a good thing, and as a former eating disorder professional I can attest to the dangers of over-exercise. How do you know when enough is enough? If you’re in regular pain from exercise, if you prioritize exercise over work or family commitments, if loved ones have expressed concern or if you “freak out” when your exercise routine is interrupted or derailed, it may be time to talk to a professional. Please be safe.)
If you want to incorporate more mood-boosting habits, you might also consider meditation, massage, hearty laughter, sniffing vanilla and savoring a piece of dark chocolate.