About a decade ago, I realized I was repeatedly getting stuck in a downward spiral that started late October. As the days got shorter, I spent less time active and outside. I’d start to feel more irritable, hypersensitive, and low energy. I’d want to sleep more, but I was going to bed later in the evening and oversleeping in the morning. With my corporate job where I had to be at my desk by 9AM, sleeping in just meant skipping exercise, followed by sitting behind a desk during the shortened daylight hours. And so, the cycle started. Letting one pillar of my health foundations slip caused a domino effect in the others. But I didn’t have the energy to stop it.
Less exercise affected the depth of my sleep. Less sleep made me crave more carbs. More carbs made me anxious and less able to sit and meditate. Less meditation made me stuck in my thoughts, irritable and anxious. And being irritable, low energy, more sedentary, sleeping poorly, eating sugary foods, and gaining weight are all the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
If you feel like this sometimes, you’re not alone. I think this set of symptoms is far more common than any of us can imagine, and they can happen anytime. Through the past decade, I’ve realized what I need to do to stay healthy and balanced during this tough transitional time between long, warm, active, outside days and shorter, colder, inside days of Winter. Here are my 3 top tips to stay out of the SAD cycle. I hope they might help you or someone you know.
First thing I do mid-October, at the first sign of not sleeping soundly, not being able to get out of bed in the morning, and then still feeling wired and awake at 10pm, is I get out my “Daylight,” a portable 10,000 LUX white light therapy lamp. (I bought mine on Amazon in 2007, I only need to use it for a few weeks each year, and it’s still going strong. Best $130 I ever spent!) The first day, I do need to force myself to get up, so I’ll set an alarm. Then, I sit in front of this high powered lamp for 15 minutes while it’s still dark out and the sun is just coming up, just before 7 AM. Sometimes I read a book, but usually I just sit and breathe (eyes open) while in front of the light. Immediately I feel both higher energy and more grounded, and this feeling lasts all day.
However, I experience the true miracle of the “Daylight” that night around 10:00pm when I’m yawning, exhausted, and completely ready to shut down. If I stay off my electronic devices and tune into my body’s cues, then I can get into bed and fall deeply asleep before 11pm. I sleep more soundly, and the very next morning, it’s actually easier to get out of bed, earlier. My eyes open on their own after the right amount of sleep, and even though it’s still dark, my body says, sleep time is over, time for wakefulness. How?
The bright light in the morning (simulating a strong burst of sunshine) hits my retina, and tells my pineal gland, which during the night is secreting the sleep inducing hormone melatonin, to stop sending the “sleep signals” to my brain. This earlier cessation of the sleep cycle automatically starts the wake cycle, which only lasts about 15-16 hours, so you’re truly ready for sleep by 11 . With your brain on board to start the day, you’ll need less caffeine and sugar to get out the door, which creates more sustained energy to be active and motivated throughout the day. The good news is, you don’t have to do this every day. Once you “reset” your wake cycle/sleep cycle, it will be easier to go to sleep early, and you’ll have the energy to rise and shine, even while it’s dark outside.
Next, with that added energy and the extra hour I gained by not hitting snooze, I get some movement in, early in the day. (First I drink a big glass of water, adding my favorite Amazing Grass or take a probiotic.) For me, the exercise can be a jog, a walk, some sun salutations, qi gong, sit ups, jumping jacks, it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t have to be for an hour every day. Sometimes I only have 10 minutes. That’ll do. I just move my body to get the energy flowing at the beginning of the day. And, as often as you can throughout the day, move your body. Preferably outdoors. Walk around the block during a 10 minute break. Have a walking meeting with a colleague. Get creative, but stand up and get moving.
Then, I eat a protein based breakfast with healthy fats. My current favorite combo is eggs with spinach (that I’ve sauteed before in bulk with olive oil and garlic, and then keep in a container in the fridge so I don’t have to do that every morning.) Add half an avocado, some salsa, and maybe a sprinkle of parmesean, and it’s a gourmet super powered breakfast in 5 minutes. The protein and fat keep me fueled up far longer than a muffin, scone, toast, cereal or any other sugary carbohydrate breakfast ever could.
I view these 3 things: mindfulness, movement and nutrition, as the core foundations that when applied early on, and repeatedly as symptoms arise, help me avoid the pitfalls of SAD. They are so important to me, that I call them my “non-negotiables.” This doesn’t mean I follow this exact routine every day, as I believe in everything in moderation, including moderation. But, I stay closely in tune with my body’s cues and know that at the first sign of increased irritability, reduced patience, lethargy, or self-criticism, I can come back to this trusted program, stay with it for a few days, and watch as I come back to balance, calm, fearlessness and full vitality.
Are you feeling a little SAD, anxious, or irritable this Fall as we transition into shorter days? As always, I recommend you be super self-compassionate, kind to yourself above all else, and get support. The tips I recommend above are just the 3 basics, and depending on the severity of your symptoms, it might not be enough for you. I’m here if you need me! If you’ve suffered from symptoms of SAD, and have another tip to share that helped you, please do so in the comments below. It will likely be very helpful to someone!
May you enjoy lots of sunshine, movement and connection during these darker days of Winter.