By Alison Fox
November 10, 2019
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With winter just around the corner, it’s time to prepare for shorter days, less sunlight, and that constant feeling of wanting to cuddle up under a cozy blanket on the couch while eating a giant bowl of cheesy baked ziti. And while that desire to hibernate during winter can be perfectly understandable, sometimes it escalates into more.

If the winter blues turn into seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that tends to hit during winter months when the amount of sunshine decreases, there are several steps you can take to help your mood — even if booking a trip to the beaches of Tulum or Hawaii are not in the cards.

“Some people are very sensitive to a lack of environmental light,” Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, told Travel + Leisure. “These people, when there’s not enough [light], tend to get a predictable set of symptoms, which include slowing down, need for more sleep, increased appetite — especially for sweets and starches — and weight gain.”

Rosenthal, who literally wrote the book on this condition — “Winter Blues” — said SAD can come on gradually and “by the time all these symptoms have accumulated, they can become quite depressed.”

There are usually three causes of SAD: genetics or biology, a lack of light, and stress. And while you can’t do much about the first, Rosenthal said there are several small changes you can make to help combat any negative feelings from the latter two.

Get more light

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This may seem like a simplified fix, but it’s actually one of the most important things you can do to counteract the winter season’s lack of light.

“If you can’t go to the sun, bring the sun to you,” Rosenthal said. “You can bring more light into your house, and you can bring special light fixtures that are calibrated to help people with seasonal affective disorder — they pack a lot of light into one place.”

These devices should have a surface area of about 12 by 18 inches. “That’s the sort of gold standard,” he said.

Wake up to the dawn

Rosenthal said dawn simulators are big lightbulbs that turn on automatically in the morning, simulating a summer dawn.

“The point is that sometimes having a light come on in your bedroom a little before you’re due to wake up can trick the brain into thinking it’s a summer dawn and can help you feel more awake,” he said. “And your mood can be better.”

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Redecorate

Why not use the winter as an excuse to brighten up your home and change out some of your old decor for the kind that will improve your mood just by looking at it? (We’re partial to decor that reminds us of our favorite vacation destinations.)

Even a simple home decor shift can create a big impact, Rosenthal said.

“You can take one room in the house and paint it with light-colored walls and bring in light-colored throws or cushions and make it a cheerful place that people will tend to congregate,” he said, adding that anything you can do to let more light in will inevitably help. “Trim the hedges around your windows, [it] lets more light in.”

Exercise

This may be the least fun tip on the list, but it’s also one of the most helpful ways to reduce stress, a major cause of SAD. And Rosenthal said that if you can combine exercise with light — either by exercising in front of a light box or going for a walk on a clear fall or winter day — that’s even better.

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“It does change your brain chemistry because you do feel so good,” he said, adding that “It helps to prevent the accumulation of winter weight, which comes from the extra snacking that you're doing.”

If you can’t get outdoors, Rosenthal said it’s important to “be creative” and “do what you have to do” like going for a walk in a mall, for example.

Watch what you eat

While it’s so tempting to load up on pasta and sugary peppermint bark when the temperatures start to dip, those types of food will not improve your mood in the long run. Instead, Rosenthal said it’s important to limit carbs to ones that are slow absorbing and lower on the glycemic index (so basically pasta and sugary desserts are out).

To help your mood, a diet rich in protein and greens is what you should be aiming for (though we won’t tell if you have the occasional indulgent hot chocolate).

Be kind to yourself

It’s all too easy to be hard on ourselves when we aren’t feeling our best, but Rosenthal cautioned that one of the most important things to do is to simply be kind to ourselves.

“Stop blaming yourself, it's not your fault, it’s a condition,” he said. “Go get some help, help yourself … you've got enough to worry about without blaming yourself.”

“It’s nice to have support, it’s nice to have company,” he said. “Don’t hesitate to ask for help … Feel free to be a little kind to yourself and ask others to do the same.”

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