Northwest Health Fall 2010

Coping With the Dark Days

Try these tips for staying upbeat during fall and winter.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

Do the chilly, gloomy days of fall and winter make you want to curl up under the covers and stay there until the sun shines again?

You're not alone. "All mammals naturally want to withdraw in the cold and dark," says Group Health Physicians psychiatrist Lynn Hughes, DO. "Bears can hibernate, but for people, there's a gap between what our hard-wired instincts tell us to do in the fall and winter months, and what our busy lives demand of us. During these months when we tend to get less of the mood-boosting benefits of sunlight and exercise, some people struggle emotionally."

What can you do to feel sunnier if you notice the dark days are getting you down?

Keep moving. "Exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in combating mild to moderate depression," says Dr. Hughes. Bundle up for a brisk walk, swim indoors, or try a gym membership.

Consider a vitamin D supplement. Sunlight is a source of vitamin D, a nutrient linked to sharper cognitive functioning and increased levels of serotonin, a substance that helps transmit signals to the brain and supports emotional health. Talk with your doctor about whether you would benefit from a vitamin D supplement.

Get some light therapy. "Give yourself every opportunity to experience daylight, such as placing exercise equipment or your work area near a window," suggests Dr. Hughes. Devices that simulate natural light can also help. Sitting in front of phototherapy lights (10,000 lux is the recommended dosage) for prescribed amounts of time, using a dawn simulator or setting a timer to turn on a light in your bedroom 30 minutes before you wake in the morning, and installing broad-spectrum lighting in your home and workplace are strategies that can provide relief.

Eat a healthy diet. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains can boost your energy level and are important year round. Fruits and vegetables of deep green or orange, like broccoli and carrots, contain nutrients that promote better mood and overall health.

Stimulate your senses. Some people find that painting their walls — or even their nails — can brighten their outlook. Aromatherapy with peppermint or other scents can be energizing.

Nurture your spirit. Slow down and curl up in a cozy chair with a good book or a journal for reflection.

Think ahead. In the summer, try to anticipate what your energy level might be like in the darker months and don't overcommit.

Get away. If time and budget allow, plan a mid-winter visit to a warmer, sunnier climate.

Adjust your attitude. "A therapist can help you train your brain to think more positively about the darker seasons," says Dr. Hughes, "which can make you feel better physically too."

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