Winter blues? Grab your hiking shoes!
By Kyla Laraway—MS, OTD,
Occupational therapist at OHSU Center for Health and Healing
As the fall foliage makes its final descent to the ground, and the days continue to shorten, many people experience uncharacteristic feelings of sadness and lethargy. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that many people deal with when the weather starts to change. Though we may not be able to control the weather, there are strategies that people can do (hiking in nature can be one of the most effective ways) to help fight off symptoms of SAD to be able to have a happier, healthier winter.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depressive mood disorder that occurs with seasonal changes. In the United States 6% of the population is affected by SAD, and another 14% suffer from a more mild form known as “winter blues.” Most people with SAD experience normal mental health throughout most of the year, but experience depressive episodes beginning in fall or winter, and fade in spring. Experts aren't sure what exactly causes SAD, but they think it may be caused by a lack of sunlight. Lack of sunlight may interfere with your “biological clock” which controls your sleep cycle and other circadian rhythms. People with decreased exposure to sunlight may also experience irregular levels of serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects our mood.
The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of clinical depression, but only occur during seasonal change. People may feel intense sadness, anxiety, or irritability, lose interest in usual activities, have low energy, sleep more but still feel exhausted throughout the day, have trouble concentrating and paying attention, and gain weight.
Treatments for SAD
As an occupational therapist, there are many suggestions that I make for clients with SAD to combat depressive symptoms including adapting the environment and engaging in physical activities.
Getting as much light as possible can help curb SAD symptoms. You can start by opening blinds in your house and sitting closer to windows when you are indoors. Trimming tree branches that block sunlight from entering your house can be a quick solution as well. Many stores also sell lights that provide supplemental light when the sunlight is unavailable. These lights are typically natural spectrum lights that mimic the energy/light waves of the sun.
Natural sunlight is always preferred, and even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help. Try to spend as much time outside as possible. Ideas include eating lunch outside, walking your dog, or getting cozy and reading on a bench. So bundle up, grab a warm cup of tea or coffee, and head outside to soak up some rays.
When we exercise it increases a neurotransmitter called dopamine which helps improve our mood, motivation, feelings of health, attention and concentration, and regulates movement and emotional responses. Exercise helps our brain absorb serotonin more efficiently. Exercise also helps relieve stress and anxiety which can make SAD symptoms worse.
Counseling and medication
SAD should be taken seriously, and therapeutic strategies may not work for everyone. If symptoms don't improve after trying light therapy and exercise find a mental health professional to help you find strategies that work. Mental health professionals can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be contributing to feeling worse. They can also help you learn to manage stress in healthy ways. If symptoms are not addressed, they can get worse and lead to problems if not treated properly. Always talk to your doctor or therapist if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or behavior, or if symptoms are drastically interfering with your work, school, or social and family life. Doctors may be able to suggest supplements or prescription medications that can help address depressive symptoms.
Why Outdoor Adventure May Be the Best Strategy
Engaging in outdoor activities combine the two most effective remedies for SAD, exercise and exposure to natural light. The therapeutic effects of nature have been well documented and include improved executive attentional performance, stress relief, increased energy and revitalization, self-esteem, positive engagement, improvement in self-concept, self-esteem, mood, cognitive and immune system function, and decreases in blood pressure, stress hormones, tension, confusion, anger, and depression.
Choosing activities such as hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, or even a simple nature walk in your community allows you to get the physical activity your body needs to regulate neurotransmitters while enjoying natural light. Plan an outing with a coworker, friends, or family to increase your social participation and improve your mood. It can be hard to be social when you're feeling depressed, but connecting with people you enjoy being around can offer extra emotional support and give you a boost of energy.
Preparing for outdoor adventures in the winter may require a little extra work to ensure a successful experience. This includes checking the weather before you head out, dressing in breathable warm layers, and planning for safe transportation to and from trailheads. Look at trail maps, research trail characteristics on websites like Accesstrails.org, and contact the park or ranger station to ask about current trail conditions before heading out on your adventure. Some winter weather can be unpredictable so I always suggest packing a beanie to keep your heat from escaping, waterproof outer layers, and hiking poles for slippery or icy surfaces.
If the effects of colder, darker days have you wishing for summer, plan a winter adventure outdoors and tell SAD to take a hike!