It goes by a number of names — the winter blues, seasonal depression, seasonal affective disorder. It is a real disorder that affects many people.
Just like other animals, human bodies are designed to respond to the environments they live in. Your livestock grow a winter coat, sleep more and need more fuel to get through the winter months. Similarly, our human bodies shut down and work to conserve energy to get through the cold, dark winter months.
This may mean we feel lethargic, want to eat and sleep more, and have little energy or motivation to get things done in our personal or professional lives. While this makes sense biologically, it can have significant effects on our mental health and well-being as we try to navigate life normally during the winter months.
Researchers have studied seasonal changes in mood and have found the further north we go – where days are shorter and colder and access to sunlight is more limited – depression and all that is associated with it increases, including alcohol abuse and increased rates of suicide.
Luckily, there are a number of things we can do to be “smarter than” our biology that can help to protect mood and well-being this time of year.
Find the light
Get outside each day and expose yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning. The lifestyle of farmers may offer some built-in protection from seasonal mood problems, as access to sunlight and fresh air is protective this time of year.
If you live in an area where sunlight is more limited, if weather patterns limit access to sunlight for longer periods of time, or you find yourself struggling with symptoms of depression in ways that are making it hard for you to function at work or home, you might consider light therapy. Emerging research suggests that exposure to bright light (that simulates sunlight) for 15-30 minutes first thing in the morning can lead to improved mood.
This intervention would not likely be enough to treat full-blown depression, but may be an important piece of the puzzle in improving or maintaining mood and well-being for individuals who do struggle with mood each winter. The Mayo Clinic has an excellent article on how to choose and utilize light therapy: https://mayocl.in/36l6q3X
Any form of exercise is especially helpful this time of year. While farmers are often more active than the general public, the workload does slow and even farmers are less active this time of year.
Rigorous exercise is especially helpful – even brief periods of intense activity (jumping jacks for 60 seconds, running the length of a football field, etc.) may help to improve mood and energy levels throughout the day.
Avoid or limit alcohol
While alcohol can improve mood in the short-term, it is a central nervous system depressor that can create or worsen depression over the long run. Consider new rituals like tea or hot chocolate in the evening instead of alcohol.
We have all had the experience of returning home and just wanting to sink into the couch or bed on a cold, dark evening. Again, it makes sense biologically — your body wants to hibernate, especially if you have been out working in the cold all day.
However, if we listen to that urge, we are likely to get more and more depressed over the course of the season. It is important to push ourselves to stay involved in personally meaningful activities, especially social interactions.
Farming can be very isolating and being around other people helps maintain mood and well-being. If you are struggling with mood or motivation, it is that much more important to find ways to get out of the rut; it may be important to make plans ahead of time to have some accountability with others.
Almost always if we get out of the house, we are glad that we did, and it fills up our hearts and souls and energizes us for the next day. This is like a habit; the more times we push ourselves and find that doing so makes us feel better, the more likely we are to push ourselves the next time. This can be key to staying healthy this season.
Hygge is a cultural concept with its origins in Denmark and Norway, where winter days are very short and cold. Hygge is an intentional attempt to create coziness, warmth and well-being, and seems to be a cultural means of working to overcome our biological propensity towards depression this time or year.
Instead of fighting against this time of year, hygge embraces it. It encourages us to cozy up with warm socks and a cup of hot chocolate, find a good book and sit under a blanket, play games with your loved ones, make a fire, find and make a new recipe or do a project.
It is about not only intentionally choosing activities that foster well-being and little moments of joy or happiness, but then intentionally recalling those happy times to help us get through other difficult times.
Several recent books have popularized the notion of hygge, including “The Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking, “Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness” by Marie Tourell Søderberg, and “The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well” by Louisa Thomsen Brits.
Consider formal treatment
While almost everyone experiences some period of “blues” over the winter, clinical depression is a serious medical condition that requires treatment. If you are feeling most of the following symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, you may be experiencing clinical depression:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness.
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters.
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports.
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much.
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort.
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain.
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness.
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame.
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things.
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide.
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches.
If your symptoms are not responding to the steps outlined above or you are having thoughts of hurting yourself, it is important to consider formal mental health treatment.
The options include medication (i.e., antidepressants) and/or talk therapy, both of which can help you return to your normal level of mood and functioning.
PsychologyToday.com is a great resource for finding local mental health resources. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day for support with emotional crises at 1-800-273-8255.
Whether you are experiencing mild symptoms of winter blues or full-blown depression, there are many resources and interventions that can help you live more fully and happily. Wishing you all the best through the winter and into 2020.
Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children Isaac and Clara. Contact her through her website, https://www.prairiehomewellness.com/.