I live in Connecticut and the last several months have felt more like the Pacific Northwest than I ever imagined possible for New England! It has rained SO much, and the moments of sunshine have been fleeting. Having lived in Colorado for 20+ years, with an average of 300 days of sunshine (yes, that’s correct, 300 days!!), these last few months in Connecticut have felt bleak. Downright dreary, gray, depressive, energy-sapping, uninspiring: these are just a few words I would use to describe the overall sentiments I’ve been feeling about this weather. And as I reflect on the weather of my mind, it’s honestly been feeling the same. So much of what we experience externally has an internal correlation, and when waking to darkness, coming home in the dark, and being under the literal clouds of gray days, it’s been hard to feel sunshiny and joyful in my heart. Can you relate to this at all?
Many years ago, I had a friend from Oregon who shared with me about the significant depression that typically onset in her community through the fall and winter months. At the time, I couldn’t understand why this would happen, having never previously lived somewhere that endures months of overcast clouds and rain. Now I understand why. Scientifically, this is a normal response to lacking sunshine and limited daylight hours and is referred to as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Roughly 6% of the US population experiences this from October through March, with the highest occurrences in January and February, through the depths of winter. In many ways, we’re just like plants, needing water and sunshine to thrive! The key functions of sunlight for us humans are to trigger production of a) natural Vitamin D which supports the immune system, and b) serotonin, one of the ‘happy’ hormones which promotes feelings of well-being, calm and positivity. In low-light availability, the body has a harder to time producing Vitamin D and serotonin, and contrarily produces excess melatonin, the ‘sleepy’ hormone, which can cause feelings of low-energy and incite tendencies for social isolation, emotional eating (or low appetite) and disinterest in activities normally enjoyed.
BUT! And I love a good BUT…. there is hope! There are many ways to intentionally combat and fight back through these gray days of the heart/mind/weather. With daylight not amply available through the winter, it’s important to take steps to recoup and recover. I’ve found that first acknowledging I’m sad is key to understanding how and why I’m feeling low, because from there I can choose to do something about it. I try to remember that each day is a new opportunity, full of bright moments, even if I need to look a little harder for them. So, I lean into that iota of ‘oomph’ to motivate and take action, knowing it will bring me into a much better state of mind. The trick is to shift the mind and do things to support yourself, even when it feels hard to do so:
Say YES to invitations with friends (and don’t cancel when bed looks more appealing).
Eat healthier foods to boost your immune system.
Try a ‘Happy Lamp’ for light therapy to increase Vitamin D.
Move your body; go for a walk, exercise, do yoga, dance in your kitchen, just move.
Get outside, and especially when there’s sun, bask in it, even if it’s just for 5 minutes.
Limit or refrain from alcohol, it’s a depressant and can amplify low feelings.
Talk with your doctor or therapist about how you’re feeling.
Get enough sleep, aiming for 7-8 hours per night.
Cuddle with a furry pet or give out lots of hugs (this boosts oxytocin, another happiness hormone).
Just get started doing something – anything to keep yourself busy and not idle – the energy to continue will come once you’re underway!
Gray days and limited sunlight will continue; I’ve come to accept that. What I have not accepted is feeling low for the next few months. Seasonal affective disorder is real and some days it feels like a battle to get myself motivated. Ultimately, I want to feel better, and I know it requires me actively taking steps to fight through the bleakness. I encourage you to seize those days when you feel more like yourself and shop for healthy foods, set dates with friends, start a new project that inspires you, so that when the tougher days come along, you’ve got things in place to help pull yourself through. I use a saying/mantra to remind myself of the good on those days when I feel bad: What’s sunny about today? It helps me see the bright moments, maybe even create them, when everything else feels dark and overcast.
By Jennifer Rizza, Founder of Newtown Wellness Collective, Health & Wellness Coach, Reiki Master, Yoga Teacher, lover of sunshine!