The fall and winter months bring with them shorter days, limited sunlight, and lower temperatures. Even under normal circumstances, it’s not uncommon for those living at higher latitudes to struggle with low mood and feel more sluggish this time of year. For some people – about 5% of the population – these conditions can induce a major depressive episode that tends to remit in the spring. This pattern is indicative of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) with Seasonal Pattern, also referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Mental health experts are warning that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with added stresses and limited access to our usual outlets for coping through the colder months, this winter has the potential to be especially challenging for many – especially for those who struggle with depression.
Preparation and planning will be key to protecting your mental health this winter. Here are five important habits to incorporate into your winter routine:
1. Stay connected as much as possible
Isolation and feelings of loneliness can be detrimental to your mental health. This winter, shorter days and lower temps will make it more difficult to gather safely with loved ones. Having a plan for how to stay connected will help keep you on track. Consider scheduling a recurring phone call or video call with loved ones. If you live with your significant other, you may be anticipating spending more time together at home during the winter months. Establishing a routine and setting boundaries that benefit you both will help keep your relationship thriving. To learn more, read How to Protect Your Relationship in Quarantine.
2. Get enough sleep, focus on nutrition, and move your body
A lot of us are feeling out of control of our circumstances and the state of the world. Focusing on matters within your control – your behaviors, habits, and routines – is always an important component of maintaining your health but especially during times of hardship or uncertainty. Proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise are fundamental to both your physical and mental health. Do your best to plan ahead for meals, as this will help you stick to your nutrition goals. Find a form of exercise you enjoy that can be done in your home or outside. If you struggle with sleep, read 5 Tips for Improving Your Sleep.
3. Expose yourself to bright light shortly after waking
This time of year, the sun rises later and sets earlier. Limited exposure to natural light in the winter months is a primary contributor to seasonal depression. Exposure to bright light shortly after waking signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up. It also helps to promote the production of serotonin – an important chemical in the brain that helps to regulate mood among other important functions. Sitting in front of a “light box” with at least 10,000 lumens (a measure of brightness) for at least 20 minutes every morning is the most effective way to achieve these benefits, but turning on bright lights in your home in the morning can be a sufficient alternative for some people. In all, make an effort to expose yourself to natural light whenever you can. If you work from home, see if you can arrange your workspace to position yourself near a window. Otherwise, find other ways to expose yourself to natural light like taking a mid-day walk or sitting by a window to read.
4. Go outside
Yes, even when it’s cold. Spending time outdoors can boost your mood, so it’s worth finding a way to make it enjoyable and comfortable to do so this winter. Investing in winter gear that will keep you warm and dry will mean you’re more likely to take that walk or play with your family in the snow. Here are 3 Strategies for Achieving the Mental Health Benefits of Nature.
5. Take advantage of online therapy
This year, mental healthcare has been revolutionized by the proliferation and improved accessibility of online therapy. Setting up a weekly appointment with a therapist could be an important component of taking care of yourself this winter. Here are 7 Reasons You Should Try Online Therapy. Not sure if therapy is right for you? Here are 5 Signs It’s Time to See a Therapist.