My Story: How Katheryn Won Against SAD
6 tips you can use to make every winter day feel joyful
“Well, maybe you just have a case of the Winter Blues,” the guidance counselor reasoned.
That was twelve years ago, back when I had mustered up the courage to head to the counseling office at boarding school in Connecticut. I couldn’t focus, my grades were suffering and I wanted to quit some activities if possible. Just the walk to the office alone was really tough on my pride; I didn’t want to admit how down I was feeling, but I wasn’t sure what else to do.
As a Florida native used to days of sunshine year-round, my body had a really hard time adjusting to the dark winters in New England.
It felt like I had morphed into a carb-eating machine overnight. The first two years at school, I had gained 20 pounds each January and February alone. And no matter how much sleep I got, I always felt like my alarm would go off right at the deepest point of my sleep cycle.
But of course, I didn’t know that SAD was the problem at the time. All I knew was that I was feeling overwhelmed and had been vulnerable with the counselor, yet all she could do was blame the weather?
Feeling helpless, I dragged my feet back to my dorm room and cried.
Eventually, the curiosity got the best of me and I typed “Winter Blues” into Google and clicked on a link about SAD. Depression. Oversleeping. Cravings for carbohydrates. Weight gain. My eyes grew wide. I couldn’t read the information fast enough and excitement in me grew when I realized that how I had been feeling was not my fault. It was just a chemical imbalance in my body.
I could have sworn I heard a church choir behind me singing “Hallelujah.”
That is until reality hit me when I realized that I had no control over the sun. How was I supposed to manage my moods for the rest of my school years when I couldn’t escape the darkness?
Maybe you’re feeling this way, too. When the days are short and the darkness long, subconsciously you might feel this lingering sense of dread that comes from knowing that this is not the norm for just a few days, but for two long seasons.
Well, there’s only two things I know for sure: It will be dark every year. And you don’t have to feel depressed. At all.
Here are 6 tips you can use to make every winter day feel joyful.
Some of these I found incredibly helpful when I was at the peak of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and some that I learned later and wished I had known back when I was struggling the most.
Skip the shower and opt for a hot bath with Epsom salts
Passive heating - especially through hot baths - has been scientifically proven to burn as many calories as a 30-minute walk, as well as lower blood sugar levels. You might notice that you have less of an appetite and sugar cravings when you take baths regularly. Plus, a hot bath will help you have better quality sleep, which means it can be easier for you to wake up the next morning feeling refreshed.
Make sure that the temperature is between 98-107 degrees (the water needs to be hotter than base body temperature to induce relaxation, but not so hot that it induces stress). And, be sure to add some Epsom salts as the magnesium helps reduce anxiety and muscle tension.
Listen to the radio (or music) in the morning
One of the worst parts of SAD is all of the negative thoughts that go through your head the first few minutes after you wake up. And looking out your window to see it’s still dark and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of life. Waking up in the wintertime for some reason feels so lonely.
Back when I was struggling most, I would immediately turn on the radio after getting out of bed and listen to cheerful voices talk about the latest news, gossip, and fun hit songs. Hearing the hosts made me feel less alone, and spending each morning with uplifting music really set my day up on a positive note.
Use light therapy
Light therapy was my savior. I used Verilux’s HappyLight light therapy alarm clock which you can set to slowly get brighter anywhere from 5-90 minutes before your alarm clock goes off.
That product is no longer available but all of the HappyLight light therapy lamps can be used like this. They just don't have the alarm clock feature at this time.
I used to feel like a pile of bricks and couldn’t roll over to turn the alarm off within a minute of it going off. But, after regular use of this light, I was able to easily bound out of bed with thoughts of positivity. Plus, my cravings for carbs dramatically decreased and for the first time, I didn’t have any weight fluctuations during my final year at boarding school.
Eat fermented foods
The neurotransmitters that control your mood are actually located in your gut. That means the more you take care of your digestive system, the more positive you’ll feel mentally. Add fermented foods like pickles (kimchi, sauerkraut), kombucha, dairy-free yogurt, miso, or tempeh to your diet. The healthy bacteria from these foods will help your body digest foods easily and boost immunity.
One problem people who consume too much sugar face is candida overgrowth, which is an imbalance of bad bacteria in the gut that causes you to have wild food cravings and a hard time avoiding sugary foods. Adding healthy bacteria to your diet can help rebalance your gut and reduce sugar cravings.
Avoid energy boosting foods that come from a different climate
Most energy-boosting foods that people become reliant on - especially in the winter time - are coffee and sugar-laden products. If you think about it, coffee beans and sugar cane come from very hot climates close to the equator - these are areas where people need the extra energy to go about their day under the hot sun.
When living in colder climates where it gets dark in the winter, this kind of energy can be quite stressful to your body and leave you feeling more depleted as soon as you have an energy crash.
Instead, see if you can sweeten the foods you crave with items that are more appropriate for the climate, like maple syrup. Maple syrup is one of the only sweeteners that come from a cold location. And instead of caffeine, opt for beverages that calmly give you a perk like herbal teas.
The less of an energy boost you have, the less crash. The less crash, the less depression, and cravings.
Exercise, but don’t overdo it.
Getting some form of movement is always important to stay healthy, but make sure that you’re not overdoing it.
Since I had been putting on weight fast during the winter season, I was more inclined to do intense, sweat-drenching workouts to compensate. When you over-exercise, your body releases stress hormones which can lower your immune system and increase sugar cravings. That’s the last thing you need if you want to feel good during the winter!
If you have been over-exercising, try swapping out strenuous exercises for a more calming movement like yoga, walking, and jogging. It might not seem like it’s being effective at first if you’re used to pushing yourself, but you might start to notice a reduction in appetite and feel better mentally.
Once I started implementing these health tips, I started feeling like myself again. My grades shot up, my relationships improved, and for the first time, I truly enjoyed the wintertime. You have the power to be in control of your moods regardless of the weather. When you focus on rebalancing your body and mind, you’ll have a positive outlook all year round.
Katheryn Gronauer is a wellness coach, writer for Women's Health, and author based in Tokyo. She was inspired to help others overcome yoyo dieting after her own experience of losing 40 pounds when she learned about food energetics in Japan. Read about her experience in her book Confessions of a Yo-yo Dieter, and visit her website www.girlonbliss.com.