In ancient Europe, the Scandinavian people lived long months in nearly total darkness in their northern homes. In some parts of Lapland, winter days are filled with almost twenty hours of dark nights and just four hours of twilight with barely any sun. To beat sadness from lack of sunlight, they invented a winter activity: Yule.
Today, we celebrate Christmas around the same time as ancient Yule and even borrow some of the same customs from the Scandinavian holiday. We decorate trees and celebrate by having a great feast, complete with root vegetables, savory gravies, and sweet bread. We even cap it off by giving presents to celebrate the coming Spring and an end to the darkness.
Of course, we now celebrate these holidays for different reasons. Unlike the Vikings who lived communally in longhouses, we often live separated, somewhat lonely lives as the cold winter rages outside. In North America, winter can mean months of bitter chills, and sometimes snow and ice blanketing the land.
It can be difficult for us to break the melancholy we feel when we cannot get outside with some winter activity in the sunlight to exercise and socialize. When we become depressed or despondent during these times, it is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is a very real illness with devastating effects on people in recovery. While we do not know exactly why some people experience it and other people do not, we do know a little about how to make it better. Vitamin D and melatonin may help, and you can ask your doctor if these are right for you.
It can also help to stay active in the cold, winter months. Some counseling techniques are also effective in helping beat SAD. Read on as we discuss these solutions and more about beating the winter chill.
How SAD Can Affect Your Recovery
Unlike some mental health conditions, SAD is not its own disorder. Instead, it is a specific type of depression, like major depressive disorder (MDD). Because of this, SAD may share some symptomology with other types of depression, but there are symptoms unique to it.
People who experience SAD may have many of the same symptoms as major depressive disorder. You may feel depressed most of the day, lose interest in things you enjoy doing, feel sluggish, and experience hopelessness and despondency. But there are some symptoms specific to wintertime SAD:
- Hypersomnia, or oversleeping, and feeling unable to get up
- Eating too much, especially foods high in carbohydrates
- Unusual weight gain, due to a desire to overindulge in sugary foods
- Hibernating, or withdrawing from social interactions
One way SAD can be treated is with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, therapists will work with you to challenge catastrophic thoughts and modify behaviors so your outlook on life can be more positive, and you cease behaviors that are maladaptive to your well-being.
One of the best parts of CBT is that it is not meant to be used for long-term therapy. Counselors will work with you to change your behaviors now. The changes you experience are tangible and beneficial to you as long as you stick with them.
Beating the Winter Blues With a Winter Activity
As we said earlier, we do not know why some people experience SAD while others do not, despite living in the same climate. However, we do have some idea of what causes SAD in those who do experience it, and how to treat it.
One of the biggest reasons for SAD may be decreases in melatonin and Vitamin D in individuals who experience SAD. Vitamin D and melatonin are naturally produced within the human body because of exposure to sunlight. During the winter months, people in northern climates do not get as much sunlight as they do in the summer months.
Sunlight may be a key factor in SAD. Scientists have found that only a percentage of the people living in Florida experience SAD, compared to ten percent of the people in Alaska where daylight conditions are similar to Scandinavia.
Researchers have found success in exposing people to UV light sources, but the best source of light for humans really is winter activity in the sun. So, when you are feeling SAD, it may be time to bundle up and walk around the neighborhood or a local trail. Even in the winter, a brisk walk can heal the soul.
Tips for Staying Active in Cold Weather
When it is cold outside, the last thing many of us want to do is put on our warmest clothes and get outside. We usually think of winter as a time for warm drinks, thick blankets, and staying inside our heated domiciles.
Keeping ourselves busy and active during the winter months can be challenging. But getting out and exercising can do more than stave off SAD. It can also help with a plethora of health problems. Here are some tips to keep active in the winter months and have fun while you are at it:
- Go for a walk on a nature trail. When there is snow on the ground and in the trees, the walk can be a magical experience.
- Keep an eye on the weather and take advantage of sunny and of unexpectedly warm days.
- Layer up when you go out.
- Try an online group workout class to get active with others in the comfort (and warmth) of your home.
- Keep up with your chores. Studies show when your space is tidy, your mental health improves.
- Volunteer at a local animal shelter or soup kitchen.
The most important thing about dealing with SAD is that you find the solution right for you. Speak to your care team about supplements, add CBT to your therapy plan, and stay active and engaged no matter how chilly the world gets outside.
Wintertime can make you go a little stir crazy. You may sit around your home, staving off boredom as you while away the chilly months longing for the coming spring. Since ancient times, people have struggled during the winter months as many of us feel isolated and alone. For people in recovery from substance use, finding activities to keep the mind and body active and focused is an absolute must. When you experience seasonal affective disorder, seek the care and compassion of your medical professionals and treatment team. CBT and other solutions may be right for you. And don’t forget to keep your body active with the many alumni opportunities at Renaissance Ranch. Call us at (801) 308-8898 today.