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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Tips to Break Out of Your Winter Rut

Posted: 01/16/2011 8:20 am

There is no denying that winter has hit the New York City area. No matter how many inches of snow we accumulate, every year we suffer from the overcast skies, bitter cold and lack of sunshine. All of these elements negatively affect our moods.

The severity of the depression that comes with the changing weather and shorter days depends on the individual. Some people who are more vulnerable are diagnosed with "seasonal affective disorder" or SAD. Those affected may withdraw from social situations, have trouble sleeping or sleep too much, become physically ill or feel extremely tired. Even if you're not officially diagnosed with SAD, the symptoms exist as a real issue for many people who live in colder climate regions.

In order to combat the negative effects of the season, I like to take a lot of mini vacations to Coconut Grove, Miami to spend time with my mother. Every time I step off the plane I am overwhelmed by how euphoric I become when I feel the warm air and the sun on my face. While there, I spend a lot of time running by the canal and on the beach. I swim and spend time in the sun and by the time I am ready to head back to the cold of New York City, I feel rejuvenated.

As you can see, I am a huge proponent of taking at least one sufficient vacation during the winter months to get away from cold weather and gray skies. However, I realize that a lot of people cannot afford the luxury of dropping everything and taking a vacation.

There are still a lot of things you can do to combat the winter blues even if you can't spare the time or money to get away. First and foremost, exercise is extremely important during the colder months and it is probably the best method of preventing depression. Exercise, especially cardio, releases endorphins, which increases our level of general happiness. Whether it's a daily brisk outdoor walk or running on the treadmill, releasing endorphins will make you happier, more alert, energetic and therefore less prone to depression.

As I mentioned, the absence of sunlight during the winter is a huge factor in the onset of seasonal depression. When we do not get enough vitamin D, this deficiency causes our moods to shift, our sleep cycles to be disrupted and our appetites to increase. We tend to feel sad, sluggish and hungrier than usual.

To deter these symptoms, I suggest Bright Light Therapy to my clients. The fluorescent light or an actual light box arterially mimics sunlight exposure. Spending at least 30 minutes per day in front of this kind of light is a natural way to improve mood and energy levels. I personally use the Philips goLITE Blu lite box.

During the winter, we don't get enough vitamin D, which can cause a decline in our immune systems. Without this vitamin our body's T Cells -- which work to ward off foreign pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses -- are weakened and cannot do their job. Taking vitamin D supplements and consuming foods such as fish, mushrooms, eggs and meat will help keep us healthy throughout the season.

When we feel depressed, we tend to gravitate toward comfort foods that are heavy in fat and carbohydrates. It is important that we recognize these tendencies and choose lighter, healthier options. These foods might be "comforting" in the moment, but eventually it leads to weight gain and greater lethargy, which in turn will cause even more depression making this a vicious cycle.

My last piece of advice is to make a concerted effort to not withdraw from social situations. Resist the urge to bail on plans with friends just because it's snowing and you don't want to leave the warmth of your apartment. Being around people you enjoy is a way to get laughing and elevate your mood, which will also release endorphins and make you a happier, healthier person. After all, laughter is the best medicine.

 

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