Yep, it’s that time of year again—the delightful season when nature gifts us with a show of her finest colors, when the weather cools enough for light scarves and boots, when the kids pick out pumpkins and costumes…
…and when Seasonal Affective Disorder hits me like a winter storm. Seriously, it’s a thing—SAD, which is about the most apropos abbreviation for a legitimate disorder I’ve ever heard. That moniker is right on the money — it makes you sad.
I first heard about SAD in 2003, when my husband and I moved to Oregon for nine months early in our marriage. Kyle grew up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, a beautiful slice of country that’s known for nine months of drizzle and more gray than sun. It was not strange to him that your foot would usually sink several inches when you step in the grass, or that people comment more when the sun is out than when the forecast predicted rain.
Strike that, reverse it for me. I grew up in Austin, Texas, in the heart of the hill country, better known as God’s Country. Three-hundred days of sunshine, on average. Regular sufferer of drought, Austin has no shortage of cloudless days, even in the winter.
So when I moved to Oregon, you can imagine my surprise—they gray knew no end. But the thing is that while I noticed the obvious rain and gray skies, I didn’t put two and two together—that the weather would affect my physical well-being—into we were deep into winter.
That winter was the first time I really experienced depression, and I didn’t know what was up. I was lethargic, spacey, and unmotivated to really do anything. It took a lot of effort to get out of bed and get ready for the day, much less get dinner on the table or run errands. I would cry about the ridiculous. I was overly sensitive. It was a rough season for me.
One day in late February, enough was enough. Another day of gray and rain was forecasted, so I decided to research how long it had been since the sun last shone. Early November. As in, almost four solid months of NO sun.
I did a bit more research, and sure enough, there’s this thing called Seasonal Affective Disorder, where you actually have circumstantial depression caused by the lack of sun.
Our bodies need vitamin D to thrive, but it only produces it when our skin is exposed to efficient sunlight. According to WebMD, only people who live south of a line drawn from Los Angeles to Columbia, South Carolina get enough sunlight for vitamin D production throughout the year. That line is pretty far south of Oregon.
And sure enough, by the time May rolled around that year and the sun peeked from behind the clouds, my mood brightened, I started feeling more like myself, and I had productive days once again.
Since that season almost a decade ago, I’ve learned that I’m prone to SAD, so I take precautionary measures when I notice the days getting shorter. Each of these things are small steps that add up to a clearer head and brighter days in the dead of winter. It’s the same simple routine for me this year—here’s my basic checklist:
1. I aim for sufficient vitamin D.
I take 4,000 IUs of vitamin D daily, regardless of the season. Most of us don’t get enough anyway, and from what my nutritionist and naturopath have said, it’s pretty difficult to get too much. I take the basic Kirkland brand from Costco. Vitamin D deficiency is the basic issue with SAD, so making sure I get enough is one of the easiest, most obvious things I can do.
2. I exercise.
I love to exercise… once I get out the door and get started. All that other stuff beforehand? That’s another story. It’s still a habit I’m working on, but the natural endorphins do wonders for my combating depression. It doesn’t take much—just 20 minutes a day produces enough endorphins to help you feel significantly better. Right now, I like to run.
3. Early to bed, early to rise…
Nights are longer and days are shorter, so it’s a bit easier to turn in earlier during the colder months. It’s more of a challenge to wake up early, however, but it’s significantly easier for me when I get a solid eight hours sleep. Sticking to a sleep routine—going to bed when my body says it’s time, and then waking to start the day even if I don’t always “feel” like it — really kicks my SAD to the curb. It tells my body that YES, we will have a fruitful, productive day.
4. I grab sunshine when I can.
Even prolonged periods of gray weather are treated every now and then with a few minutes of sunshine. I go out of my way to spend a little bit of time outdoors every day—even a simple walk around the block. Day after day locked in my house, and I start to go a bit nuts. Ask my husband.
People who have more serious issues with SAD equip their homes with special lights that stimulate the sunshine, and counseling often helps as well. I have a history of depression, so I can tell you first-hand how much cognitive therapy helps. If you feel like you have more serious symptoms—get help. Really. No shame at all.
Now that I live in another city with plenty of sunshine, I still feel the side effects of SAD every winter, so these simple steps go a long way to preserve my sanity. Fall remains one of my favorite times of year, but it’s simply the dawn of winter—and it’s long up here in the north. Baby steps like these get me through those six months.
Have you ever had Seasonal Affective Disorder? What do you do to help you feel better?
If you think you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder or another condition, always consult your doctor. These tips worked personally for me and should not be considered medical advice.
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