Dealing with the Darkness: The Best Strategies for Good Mental Health

10/28/2016 03:41 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2016
As the days get darker, be aware of your mood. Taking care of yourself includes your mental health!
Image credit: Moyan Brenn
As the days get darker, be aware of your mood. Taking care of yourself includes your mental health!

It starts slowly. I begin to feel more tired and wake up feeling like I need more sleep. Then the desire to exercise diminishes. I need to push myself harder to do my workouts (even though I always feel better after). I feel down and unmotivated despite that things are going well personally and professionally. What’s happened? It’s October and Seasonal Affective Disorder is in full swing.

As the days get darker, feeling “down” or “low” is common. The change in season and fewer daytime hours can impact your mental health with some people experiencing it at a level of clinical depression, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). According to Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, about 2-6% of Canadians will experience S.A.D. in their lifetime, while 15% will experience a milder form of S.A.D.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Oversleeping
  • Lethargy (low energy)
  • Intense craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Withdrawal from friends and social situations
  • Depressed mood occurring over at least two consecutive winters, alternating with non-depressed periods in the spring and summer

If you identify with a number of these symptoms, don’t ignore them! I highly encourage you to talk to a medical professional. There are a number of different therapies and treatments that can help, such as light therapy, medications, and/or counselling and psychotherapy.

Strategies to Improve Mental Health

Whether or not you have S.A.D, there are a number of ways you can improve your mental health, especially during the darker months of the year.

  • Exercise daily - do some form of movement every day. This could be walking, running, strength training, yoga, dancing, etc. Even a quick 15 minute at-home workout is great!
  • Eat a balanced diet made up primarily of whole foods, focus on protein, veggies and healthy fats
  • Take vitamin D (talk to your Doctor about the right amount) and Omega-3
  • Go for a massage
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation, focusing on the positive aspects of your life
  • Get enough sleep
  • Laugh more
  • Volunteer for a local charity or organization
  • Spend time outside, especially on a sunny day

Talk with Friends and Family

This point gets its own section because I believe it’s that important. When you share with family and friends what you’re going through a number of things happen:

  • it helps you feel like you’re not alone
  • it breaks down the stigma of mental health issues
  • you may encourage them to open up about their own struggles
  • it helps them be aware of your situation so they can look for signs you aren’t doing well

It’s also helpful to spend time with loved ones. Erin Byron, Psychotherapist and Yoga Therapist, explains that when we reveal ourselves to people who care about us we are seen for who we truly are; a fundamental component of positive mental health. She says, “It takes a lot of energy to maintain a façade – energy better used for activities that are important to us. Engaging in walking, cooking, and laughing with loved ones add power to your coping strategies. There are few things more cheery than a small dance party in your living room.”

It can be hard to reach out but sometimes you need channel your inner toughness and force yourself to do it. Personally whenever I’ve done this I never regret it and always feel better.

Tap Into Your Creative Side

Many people don’t consider the powerful effect creative activities can have on their mood. Often, emotions and psychological patterns can create a sense of lethargy, loneliness, or low mood. According to Byron, “while brighter months of the year may distract from inner turmoils, during the quiet months of hibernation, our own inner beasts may begin to stir. Simple creative acts like journaling, drawing, or colouring give you space to express yourself freely. This not only lets go of some hurt that may be contributing to depression, but more importantly it can bring you a sense of inspiration and lift your spirits.”

If you experience S.A.D., Byron suggests that some of the depressive symptoms may be connected to a deeper pain or unresolved past experience. If the methods listed above don’t help your recovery, consider visiting a therapist or counsellor. She says, “You might be surprised at the difference working through some of the pains of the past makes on your ability to experience happiness in everyday life – even in the darker months!”

See below for some resources that provide more information on S.A.D. and mental health. Don’t ignore something that feels “off” or if symptoms last more than a few weeks. Talk to a trusted friend and see a professional to discuss what’s going on. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health!

Lydia Di Francesco is a Certified Personal Trainer, Owner of Fit & Healthy 365 and Creator of the 15 Minute Workout Club Online Program. Lydia likes to educate the public that healthy living can be simple and fun! She is also an advocate for mental health and reducing the stigma of mental health issues.

Resources:

Call your local Distress Centre (here’s a list of crisis centres across Canada)

If you are in crisis or have an emergency, visit your local emergency department or call 911.

Sources:

Frequently Asked Questions - Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), Mood Disorders Association of Ontario

Promoting positive mental health, healthycanadians.gc.ca

Image by Moyan Brenn

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