31 years ago, one of my roommates, who was a nurse, showed me an article about seasonal affective disorder & told me she thought I had it. I immediately doubted I could have anything that had a name like that, but as I read the article, I realized it explained SO MUCH of what I had been experiencing in the winter. I hadn't even put it together that it had anything to do with winter. And it took another decade to fully understand all the ways it affected me, and all the ways I could prevent or lesson the symptoms. But I have to confess that it's only been in the past few years that I was really able to turn it around. I'll tell you how & help you identify your own winter symptoms in this post.
What is Winter Blues?
About 20% of the population has winter blues to some degree, so it is a lot more common than you might think. You may have heard many different names for it, including winter blues, seasonal depression, winter depression, and seasonal affective disorder.
But what is it, exactly?
Many people feel a little down when the holiday season comes to an end, and it's normal to get tired of seeing snow on the ground long before winter comes to an end.
So when does an aversion to getting up when you know you could just stay tucked in instead of letting your feet touch the cold floor become winter blues? When does wishing the rain would go away shift into feeling depressed because you're not getting the sun, or the vitamin D you need?
If you've never liked winter, does that mean you have winter blues?
Well, as you might imagine, it's a matter of degree. Let's take a look at what winter blues looks and feels like...
Based on the video, on a scale of 1-10, what would you say is the severity of the winter blues symptoms you experience? And which symptom is most difficult?
My own rating has lessened because of everything I now put in place each year for support and prevention. But it is still a struggle. When I am feeling my best in July and/or early August, the return of my winter blues symptoms is just around the corner. I would rate my own severity at 6 or7, but it used to be at 9 or 10. My goal is to lower it to 5 this year. Stick around to see if it works. My hardest symptom - it's a toss-up between sluggishness/lethargy and carbohydrate cravings and weight gain. This year, so far, I have lost weight. My goal - to stay at this current weight until winter is long over!
Winter blues or seasonal affective disorder can create the following or similar experiences during fall and/or winter. Which ones do you experience?
(1) Having less energy or motivation for the normal things you do every day. Later in this section, we'll talk about getting up in the morning. But this lack of energy and motivation can follow you all the way through your day. You have intentions to check off everything on your list, but you just can't seem to get it done.
(2) Craving carbohydrates and sweets & overeating so that weight gain is possible. If your weight fluctuates, as mine does, think back - do you often gain weight in the winter? or before summer arrives? You may find that your appetite seems to increase for no reason, and/or you crave things more than usual. During the rest of the year, you may have an occasional treat, but in the winter, you crave it every day, or much more often.
(3) Wanting to sleep more or having difficulty getting up in the mornings or insomnia (or both). The alarm goes off and you can't believe that you have to get up now. Becoming alert feels like moving through molasses. In fact, you might be well into your day before you feel fully awake and alert. You may find that sleeping feels better than getting up, because you don't have to summon any energy to do it. Or, you long for sleep but just can't get enough. You lie in bed, wide awake, worrying about how little sleep you will have had when you finally get up.
(4) Feelings of irritability. You may notice that you have much less patience than usual when things go wrong. It's like having a bad day, when you feel on the edge and don't think you can handle one more stressful thing - but that day happens again and again, and some part of you observes your thoughts, feelings, words and behavior and doesn't understand why you're getting irritated so easily.
(5) Feelings of depression or sadness, not enjoying the things you normally like to do. It's so important to have resources or things you can do that you can count on to make you feel good or better. But with winter blues or SAD, doing them may not work as well as they usually do.
You take a long soak in the tub and you feel just as irritable when you get out as you did when you stepped in. You love to read, or drink a warm cup of tea, but you notice that they don't bring as much joy as usual. Even being with those you love lacks the usual comfort you feel when you get together.
(6) Finding it difficult to concentrate on things, brain fog or foggy thinking. It's hard to keep reading that good book, and even when you are watching movies, you find it hard to concentrate and stay with it. Or you are thinking about something and your good idea seems to dissipate, or you have trouble describing it to someone else. It feels like you can't quite think as well as you normally can.
(7) Finding that getting things done takes longer than it usually does. For example, you expect that getting ready for work will take about an hour. But nearly two hours later, you're surprised that that much time has gone by without your realizing it. Everything seems to take too long, and sometimes that makes you late when you thought you had plenty of time.
What I hate about having these symptoms - and I have had them all to varying degrees - is that if you don't know what's going on, it can be so easy to blame yourself! I can't tell you how many times I thought I was turning over a new leaf when summer came, only to realize that it was who I was all along. I just wasn't able to live it during the winter.
If you take nothing else away from this blog post, know that winter blues can change your life in ways you won't even be fully aware of, so be gentle with yourself. If it doesn't seem like you, it probably isn't. It's the winter blues that won't get out of your way.
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light box for a certain length of time each day. It is designed to mimic bright, outdoor summer light and cause a biochemical change in the brain to lift mood and relieve symptoms of SAD." ~ Minnesota State University
I urge you to talk with your healthcare practitioner or doctor about whether or not light therapy could work for you. In the 31 years that I have been aware of having winter blues, nothing else has worked for me. Nothing.
There were things that helped, and I'll be talking about symptom-specific solutions in the weeks to come. But light therapy is the only thing that has helped lessen my winter blues symptoms in a significant way. This year, my symptoms didn't start until September and did not begin to really be a problem until this month. Earlier this year, I felt better months sooner than I normally do.
I can't promise you'll have the same results, of course, and you and your doctor know you better than I do, but it has been transformational for me.
"Getting bright light in the morning is best, says Al Lewy, MD, PHD, a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, and a veteran researcher in the field." ~ WebMD
Research studies suggests that the best light for winter blues sufferers like you and me is morning light. So expose yourself to as much sunshine and morning light, in general, every day that you can.
One article I read suggested going against the grain and getting up quite a bit earlier than you need to, so you have plenty of time to wake up and bathe in light as you do.
Grab a cup of tea and a book and plant yourself outside in sunlight or inside next to a big window in a well-lit room. Cozy it up & turn it into a hygge moment.
And if you are already used to taking walks as a form of exercise, try taking them as early in the morning as possible, once the sun is up.
Know that I'm with you as fall becomes winter. I'll be checking in here to share how it's going for me, and I'd love to hear how it's going for you, too. My goal for winter is to soak up as much light as I can, every day, take the time to create cozy moments throughout the day.
If perceived happiness is going to be a challenge, after I have done what I think will help most with that, I intend to surrender and give up that particular fight. During the winter, cozy is in my wheel house, so I will aim for that, instead. What would it be like if you aimed for cozy?
Also, I am hoping not to gain weight this year. My life has been pretty stressful during the past few months, though, so I am hoping that will ease soon so eating won't be such an issue. Are you a comfort eater, too? I'll be talking more about winter meal plans, too.
Bless you as we head for the loss of daylight saving time!
Here's an action step you can take - begin to create a plan for transforming your experience of winter. My free Winter Blues Breakthrough Kit will help.
Love to you!!
P.S. Here's the light box that has worked so well for me this past year.