SAD Running

While it's not "officially" winter quite yet, in my humble opinion, December qualifies.

So there you have it: the fourth season is upon us. And to no surprise its chilling temps, gloomy skies and shorter days bring about an inevitable string of "winter blues" for many outdoor enthusiasts. We start hitting the 'snooze' button with more frequency, shortening (or even worse, skipping) workouts, and excusing our fit-focused diets for second helpings of chili and extra cups of hot cocoa. 

And for some (myself included), the sadness seems inescapable. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a complex mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs the same time each year—generally being winter.

All of the sudden, your once upbeat cyclist co-worker becomes melancholy and unmotivated; the avid hiker from down the street transforms into a glum pessimist; and your bubbling, energetic marathoner pal loses all gusto, becoming cynical and moody. Much more intense than a minute case of "winter blues", SAD seems to suck the life from those unlucky enough to be caught in its suffocating tethers. 

Those who revolve their lives around spending time outdoors generally suffer from SAD more than others. The outside activities they so passionately once enjoyed are now made uncomfortably cold obligations. The daily tasks that once were so easily achievable are now daunting and tedious. The tiny annoyances of day-to-day routine are now close to unbearable. Instead of participating in social group outings via bike, they opt for the car commute. Rather than running, they mope around the house and eat carb-heavy (also hot) sandwiches, book in hand. Instead of swimming in chilled pools, they prefer hour-long baths and steamy showers... You get the picture.

Sure, sipping hot chocolate, soaking in bubble baths and perusing novels are all wonderful indoor actives, but one should never allow a change of season to disconnect them from their most innate passions.

As a triathlete, I have struggled with this for years. Every winter I end up gaining about 10 pounds due to non-stop consumption of comfort food diet; I go weeks without any sleep, followed by weeks of oversleeping; and I repeatedly blow off workouts because "it's just way too cold out there". I become angry and irritable, resulting in a dwindling social life and tension among once thriving relationships. All in all I become a stranger to myself, leading to heightened insecurities and anxieties.

But, I've made plans to somehow combat the winter blues this year. I've researched and tested a variety of methods in attempts to eliminate my SAD; and while I can't get rid of it completely (after all, this is a legitimate medical disorder), I have found a few things that seem to help.

Here are some ways to fight off the winter blues and deal with seasonally related depression:

1. Start each day with a cup of hot water with lemon. This simple drink warms you from the inside, instantly waking you up and giving you energy to kickstart the day. The concoction aids early morning digestion and clears the body of negative toxins—and let's be honest, everyone can benefit from getting rid of that junk! (If you aren't a fan of the taste, an alternative would be to drink your favorite hot tea with a squirt of lemon. Add honey to sweeten.)

2. Consider a Vitamin D supplement. Talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking Vitamin D, as this specific vitamin has been linked to helping treat depression. Other nutrients linked to improving mood include omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and B vitamins. Dark chocolate and small amounts of red wine have also been surprisingly shown to improve mood. (But then again, chocolate and wine always help, right?)

3. Stay active. Don't make excuses—exercise anyways! Though motivating one's self to go for a run outside during winter months is increasingly difficult, doing so is immensely beneficial for your physical and mental health! And if it's too cold for your liking, try out a stationary bike or elliptical indoors instead. Getting the blood pumping and stimulating the body's endorphins helps to naturally boost mood! It may seem ironic, but when low on energy, forcing yourself to exercise can actually give you the energy you need.

4. Keep a to-do list each day. By writing out your day-to-day obligations, you'll motivate yourself to stay on track! (Sometimes I write things down that I've already done, just so I can have the pleasure of crossing it off! *Laughs*) Similarly, maintaining a journal is a great way to vent about your innermost thoughts and feelings. I've found that releasing some of your anxieties through a pen helps dissolve stress significantly. Not everyone wants to vulnerably vent to a close friend or seek out a counselor, so using a diary is a great alternative!

5. Test out a light box. It might sound hokey, but try a light box or dawn simulator in the morning. Light therapy boxes use lightbulbs of varied wavelengths that mimic sunshine, helping stimulate the boy's circadian rhythms and suppress natural release of melatonin. Having the light on for 30 minutes each morning gives a calming feeling similar to laying out at the beach on a summer's day! Another option would be to utilize a dawn simulator, which increases light in the room as you wake. Rather than using an obnoxious alarm clock, this simulator gradually releases light into a room like the sunrise. (PS. In general, introducing yourself to as much natural light as possible will impact your mood significantly!)

6. Load up on greens. And by that, I mean eat healthy. I know, I know, it's hard. Trust me, I am among those who sincerely struggle to eat "clean". In fact, I normally eat like an obese man who sustains himself on pastries and ice cream. Alas, a healthy diet makes a tremendous impact on energy level and overall mood. Implementing whole grains, nuts, fish, meat, veggies and fruits into your diet will unarguably give you extra pep in your step! While buttery, doughy sweets result in temporary ecstasy, it's always wise to focus on long-term happiness. Pies and cakes lead to unwanted sluggishness and caloric remorse, but kale, spinach, walnuts, and salmon lead to increased attentiveness, countless jumping jacks and tireless zest!

7. Use essential oils for aromatherapy. Studies show that certain scents alleviate depressive symptoms and can influence sleep and appetite. But more than the scent alone, essential oils directly impact neuroendocrine hormone levels. In particular, lavender, citrus and poplar have proven beneficial to those with depression! I always light candles around the house during winter months, but rubbing oils on my temples and under my nose is the true stimulant!

8. Be creative and/ or start a new hobby. You may not consider yourself an "artist", but then again, why let a label limit you? By putting your creativity to the test, without pressure for perfection, you allow yourself to take on new, quirky projects and just have fun. Try painting a picture, learning photography, teaching yourself to play an instrument or dance. These projects will take your mind off of any negative feelings and provide balance into your hectic life, leading to an overall more positive mindset during those dreary months. Just enjoy the process!

9. Spend time with friends and family. Convincing yourself to maintain a solid social life when it's sub-30 outside is hard. We are too busy, too tired, too overwhelmed—we just need time to ourselves, curled up in a cocoon of blankets with Netflix, right? Well, surrounding yourself with uplifting people who know and love you can make the world of a difference! Even just squeezing a 30-minute coffee date into your day or grabbing lunch with a co-worker helps! Try not to isolate yourself into hibernation. It might seem nice and cozy, but it can actually wreck your mental state over time. Make sure you're filling that calendar with fun activities, alongside your favorite people!

10. Treat yourself! End each day with a treat, whether it be a literal sweet dessert or an abstract gift-to-self. Don't feel guilty if you cave in and by yourself a slice of chocolate cake mid-day or make an impulsive trip to the mall! You deserve it! And definitely make sure you give yourself at least an hour each night to relax: write in a journal, listen to jazz, drink a cocktail, stretch by the fireplace, or watch your favorite TV show. Silence your buzzing mind and allow yourself a moment of peace. 

By Olivia Harlow

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