Woman feeling depressed during christmas days

Woman feeling alone during christmas holiday

Do you find your energy levels and mood tend to take a hit when the weather gets colder? If so, you are not alone.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5% of adults in the U.S. experience seasonal affective disorder. People with SAD suffer from mood changes and symptoms similar to depression.

Research suggests that SAD is a result of a biochemical imbalance in the brain, triggered by a reduction in daylight hours. A decrease in sunlight can impact serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that affects mood and has been associated with depression. The symptoms typically begin in the fall and last through the winter months, improving with the arrival of spring.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, common signs and symptoms specific to winter-pattern SAD include low energy, social withdrawal, excessive sleepiness, overeating, weight gain and a craving for carbohydrates.

With winter here, use these tips to help prevent the winter blues and improve your mental well-being.

Follow a Healthy Eating Plan

Feeling down can make it harder to eat healthy and can increase cravings for unhealthy foods high in sugar and empty calories. While feeding these cravings tends to provide a short-term boost in mood and energy levels, it is unlikely to help you in the long term and can lead to other negative health consequences.

Unfortunately, there is not one single food or nutrient that has been shown to prevent depression; however, consuming a variety of whole, nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds can significantly improve how you feel emotionally.

Follow a healthy eating plan to help increase mood, energy levels and overall health.

Move Regularly

While engaging in physical activity may be the last thing you feel like doing when you are feeling low, think again. The body releases chemicals called endorphins during physical activity, which can trigger an increase in mood and decrease feelings of stress and anxiety. The benefits do not stop there.

Research has shown that meeting the physical activity recommendations decreases our risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancers and mental health disorders, strengthens the immune system, helps maintain a healthy weight, and improves our overall quality of life.

Aim for at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity or an hour and 15 minutes of more vigorous physical activity each week. For even more benefits, try taking a walk outside during the daylight hours to soak up some extra sunlight. Be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.

Get Enough Sleep

Most of us know that a good night’s sleep can directly impact how we feel the following day.

Studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood, leading to irritability, memory issues, trouble focusing, and even feelings of anxiety, anger,and sadness.

Researchers have also found that long-term sleep deprivation can increase our risk of developing chronic health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. It is obvious that getting enough sleep is extremely important for our overall health.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. There are many ways you can improve your sleep habits.

Follow a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends; disconnect from electronic devices like mobile phones and laptops at least one hour before bed; and keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.

Increase Social Interactions

Research has repeatedly found that strong social connections strengthen people’s mental health. A lack of social interactions and social relationships can have negative effects on an individual’s mental health, leading to feelings associated with depression.

This finding makes a strong case for the importance of having friends and family to lean on during difficult times. With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting social interactions, when the guidance allows, try to schedule an outdoor meet-up with a friend or family member. Just do not forget to social distance and wear a mask.

If it is impossible to gather face to face, find time for a phone call or a virtual gathering to stay connected.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

It is important to take time to relax, especially when you are feeling mentally drained. Practicing relaxation techniques can help calm stress and anxiety and reduce tension in the body and mind. Examples are progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, mindfulness and deep breathing.

Studies have shown practices like mindfulness can lead to a significant decrease in negative psychological symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. There is also evidence that mindfulness can help us better control our emotions.

Try to find a relaxation technique that you enjoy and can practice daily or multiple times per week.

Remember, do not be afraid to seek professional help if you are struggling. Talk with a mental health professional or your primary care physician for treatment options, like talk therapy or medications. With the longer days of spring ahead, hopefully for many this too shall pass.

Katie Greenawalt is a Penn State Extension educator in Lebanon County.

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