Give me your best SAD hacks!
November 8, 2010 8:36 AM   Subscribe

The time change just kicked in, which means the long, cold, dark, stupid winter starts now! Other people who get Seasonal Affective Disorder or related symptoms -- what are your best hacks to make the season more bearable?

Most of the previous questions seem to deal with light therapy; I'm also looking for random lifestyle hacks here. Whatever has made you feel better throughout the winter -- lightbox techniques, supplements, exercise routines, hobbies, activities, foods, music, whatever!

Special snowflake details:
- Boston area
- I have this lightbox, but would appreciate tips on how to use it effectively
- Self-employed, usually work at home, natural night person all make it hard to maintain good sleep discipline -- would appreciate tips on that as well!
- Winter depression is mild to moderate; usually around February or March I start thinking "Hey this depression thing is getting pretty bad! Maybe I should get some treatment!" but then a month later "Never mind, I feel better!". So I'm guessing that there are probably simple lifestyle things I can do that will make it less likely to get as bad.
posted by anotherthink to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 119 users marked this as a favorite
Vitamin D supplements. At least 2000 units a day (which is the recommended dosage for people with normal levels) You might want to get your levels checked -- if they're low, your doctor can prescribe you higher-strength supplements.
posted by missjenny at 8:48 AM on November 8, 2010

Take a sauna. That's what they do in Sweden and Finland where it gets really dark in the winter.

See if your local Y or health club has one. If you own a house and can afford a couple of thousand bucks, you can build them from a kit.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:53 AM on November 8, 2010

That lightbox. Use it from early morning to c. 8 p.m. nearby your workstation; first adjust it comfortably, and then push it up a good notch (obviously, avoid reflections on your screen, or other discomfort from it).
To keep it on too long into the evening has made me even more reluctant to go to bed than otherwise, so that's why I write "8". I have violated this rule in cases of deadlines...

I have worked at home in West Sweden for years and for me this has been the only way to make it halfway through that absolutely unbelievably disgusting winter weather there.
posted by Namlit at 8:54 AM on November 8, 2010

Sunrise alarm clock. And use its sunset mode to fall asleep while reading.
posted by grouse at 8:57 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Breakfast is vital. Actually feeding up in general is. But if I can keep myself cooking, and eating well, it really helps, both with the emotions and the despair and whatever, and with the scheduling my time better so as not to fall into that weird stumbling nocturnal cycle. A good protein-heavy breakfast, or something Asian like a kimchi rice bowl with fried egg, just something hot and rib-sticking, keeps me much more centered and functional than almost anything else can.

Also there's definitely something to the whole winter celebrations thing. When I was first not living with the parents I got all huffy and lapsed-Jew about it, declaring myself above Christmas and whatever, but these past few years I've done a steady stream of holiday celebrations from Thanksgiving straight on through St. Patrick's. Having plans to keep with friends and family, parties to attend, casseroles to bake, wacky solstice celebrations to look forward to, all this stuff helps me keep away from that pit of never ending winter darkness. I've had to shrug off a lot of cynicism to accept it, but it definitely helps.
posted by Mizu at 8:59 AM on November 8, 2010 [13 favorites]

SAME BOAT. I'm not necessarily the best person for hacks because I just recently started trying to tackle SAD myself (the past 2 years or so) but the lightbox ~15 mins / day definitely helps.

My SAD was much less horrible last year than any other year, which I mostly attribute to the trip I took in December/January to Japan (which isn't exactly tropical, but is SIGNIFICANTLY warmer and sunnier than where I normally live). It allowed me to miss some of the coldest/darkest days at home, and was a nice reminder that yes, the world is not always a cold, dark, horrible place. Traveling is sort of an expensive way to combat SAD, but if you can afford it I would definitely try to make it to somewhere a bit warmer/sunnier during these winter months. That trip did seem to tide me over mental-health-wise though for almost the entire winter (like you, February/March is the worst for me, and I was definitely still feeling the positive effects of Japan+lightbox by then).
posted by mokudekiru at 9:01 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do hot baths in the evening, which is nice because I can get out, dry off, and get into bed already all warm. I also make a point of prying myself out of the house on a regular basis, even if it's midnight, rather than sit around and be angry and depressed and restless and insomniac.

My best winters are the ones with the fewest stress-inducing holidays and/or trips - YMMV, of course.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:03 AM on November 8, 2010

Either lightbox or natural light in your face as early as possible in the morning. If necessary close your eyes, but get light into the corners around your eyes. I don't know why this is important, but for some reason it keeps coming up in studies that hit the press as the area to expose, and it seems to be true for me.

Exercise as early as possible in the morning. Something high intensity aerobic for at least half an hour works well for me.

As much variety and freshness in your diet as possible. This one's huge for me. I think making an extra effort to prepare interesting food myself is also part of it. I guess it keeps me engaged with something outside myself even when things are rough.

And the usual sleep hygiene stuff, I guess - no caffeine after early/mid afternoon, same with sugar if you find it gives you too much of a buzz, learn a meditation or relaxation routine or two, don't exercise within an hour or two of going to bed, only use your bed for sleep and if you can't sleep get up and do something calming so that you continue to always associate your bed with sleep.
posted by Ahab at 9:09 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing that's worked for me (especially when I'm sat in the office all day) is to go for a walk outside around dusk. I find that actually witnessing the transition to night provides a little bit of balance and helps counter the feeling of the darkness encroaching into the day. Working from home I found even more of a challenge, but I found the same principle applies - go for another walk outside at the end of your working day to symbolically mark the transition from working day to leisure time. In fact, getting out the house in general helps a lot, even if it's really miserable weather, because at least then you can feel like being indoors is a warm, cosy choice, rather than just the result of being trapped by winter nastiness.
posted by iivix at 9:14 AM on November 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

I asked this question a few weeks ago; some of the answers might help you too. Shortly after I asked it, we went through the house and replaced nearly all of the burnt-out light bulbs. It helps!

A couple other things I've done:

-Clip-on reptile lamp at work - a fraction of the price of a light box. I'm considering getting a second one for home.

-In the winter, I need color almost as much as I need light. Having pictures of summery garden scenes and backyards around helps me. Get houseplants if you can keep them alive, or fake plants if you don't care about tackiness.

-Take advantage of the sunlight when it's there. Even if it's freezing, going outside in the sun feels a lot nicer than staying inside with the lights on. If you work at home and your schedule is shifted so you sleep late and stay up late, you might not be getting much daylight at all. I don't really have any good tips for modifying your sleep schedule, but I've noticed I've been getting up earlier on sunny weekend mornings because of my must get all the sunlight mentality.

-Schedule short trips to warmer climates, even if you don't do anything when you get there. In addition to the weather being nicer, you'll be on vacation and can walk around in the sunshine all day.

-The winter solstice falls on December 21st this year; after that, the days start getting longer. Even though the crappy weather won't let up for a couple months after that, I keep that in mind as the day when things start getting better.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:21 AM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

I work at home, too. One thing I've found that helps with general feelings of mental health is to make sure to take a lunch break of at least a half hour before the sun starts to set to take a decent walk outside. The fresh air and natural sunlight really, really helps me to feel grounded.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:22 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Make soup. Soup is awesome.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:29 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That Vitamin D thing is intense! I knew Vitamin D was supposed to help with SAD, but figured I was getting it in my multivitamin -- but now I see the multivitamin has only 400 units! I will definitely pick up some of the high octane stuff.

I rally like that idea about walking outside and observing the transition to dusk, too. That seems like it would help me see it as a normal part of the day instead of "Oh no, suddenly it is dark and everything sucks!"

Thanks -- great answers so far, everyone! Will definitely be returning to this thread throughout the winter.
posted by anotherthink at 9:39 AM on November 8, 2010

I rally like that idea about walking outside and observing the transition to dusk, too. That seems like it would help me see it as a normal part of the day instead of "Oh no, suddenly it is dark and everything sucks!"

Yes! Exactly! Remind yourself that both you and the changing seasons are a part of the natural world.

Something else that's helped with that: having F.lux installed on my computer. Over the past month or so, I've been reminded of the changing season by the dimming of my computer at sunset. This also helps me to get to bed at a slightly more reasonable time (between 1 and 2 instead of at 3 or 4--I'm a night owl, too), which helps me wake up earlier, which gets me a few more hours of sunlight.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:08 AM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Vitamin d. Also do not be a fraid to go outside. Take a walk. if your sufrficiently bundled up it should not matter. I live on long island and as long as i am bundled up walk help an awfull lot. even if its night time. something about the cool air makes everything feel better.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:19 AM on November 8, 2010

How about adding fresh flowers to your space? Perhaps once a week treat yourself to a nice bouquet.

Scents - instead of cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice candles, use things like "lilac," "morning dew," or "fresh citrus.". Don't underestimate the power of smell. A few weeks ago I put in a cinnamon candle. It was 90 degrees out, bright and sunny. The kids came home from school, and immediately told me how cozy it was in the house and that they couldn't wait for the upcoming holidays. It was the candle that made them feel that way (cuz it sure wasn't the neat and tidy house).

I have a friend that keeps some essential oils in her purse - things that remind her of the outdoors - pine, lavender, etc. Anytime she's feeling cooped up (and can't get outside), she takes a whiff. Immediately lifts her spirits.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:20 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding early morning exercise. It's so hard to get yourself up for a morning workout, but it made a *huge* difference for me last winter, so it's worth fighting inertia to get that cardio in. Even if it's dark when you start, a 20-30 minute morning run really shock away the winter blahs for me.
posted by Kurichina at 10:29 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Vitamin D, vitamin D, vitamin D! The Canadian government recommends that all citizens get at least 1,000IU every day. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 is usually enough for most people to get through the worst of it. I take a 1,000IU supplement in addition to the 400IU in my multivitamin, and it works really well.
posted by ErikaB at 10:55 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding the morning exercise, and do it outside if it's remotely possible. Even on a cloudy/rainy day, you're going to get way more light outside than you will inside (unless you're right in front of your lightbox). I walked to and from work every day last winter in Boston, so don't worry about weather, you'll be chilly when you leave the house but if you dress appropriately (two words: rain pants) it's entirely doable and once you get walking/running/whatever you warm right up. When I started walking to work I felt about a million times better about everything in my life, and I think part of it was the exercise and part of it was just being outside.

And I am also an evangelist for the dawn alarm clock. Most of them are not true light therapy, but that's OK. I just find it way more enjoyable to wake up to a lit room than to a dark one.
posted by mskyle at 11:15 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm going to attempt to answer this as a person who has the opposite of SAD. I hate heat and bright sunshine. I much prefer winter and dark, cold days and nights. So maybe if I tell you a bit about what, specifically, I like about this time of year, it may give you some ideas.

Use the morning! Daylight savings time gives you the dark nights and the slightly lighter mornings so get yourself out of bed and do something - preferably outdoors - in the morning. It's harder to drag yourself out of bed but once you do and get yourself moving your sluggish body starts to feel good. Exercise! It gets the viscosity out of your blood and defrosts the mind. Now, assuming you're working more-or-less regular hours that means you might only get the benefit of this at weekends, but that's okay. That's something. Go to the gym, for a swim, for a run, a bike ride, a walk. Breathe in that damp autumnal air as you move through the anorexic morning light. But look at the colour of those leaves! Gorgeous, isn't it? It's cold, sure, but if you wrap up well and keep moving even that starts to feel oddly bracing, and by the time you're home and into a hot bath or shower it feels pretty glorious, sort of like a sauna after a cold swim. And then, oh boy, you earned yourself a cooked breakfast! Sit down with the paper and the radio and tuck into some bacon and eggs, and hot coffee strong enough to fell a shire horse. You can't enjoy coffee like that when the temperature is in the nineties, now can you? Relish it!

Then , you have your day. Maybe you're in the office/workplace - eh, that's pretty much always the same year round, right? Unless the AC or the heat isn't working, but let's face it, either of those situations is a drag so it's not like it's worse in winter, really... and then you have your evening. It's dark, when you leave, yeah, and I can see how that's going to get a SAD person down, so make sure you socialise at least once a week. Go somewhere warm and bright. A convivial pub with good winter ales and steak pies or rib-sticking home cooking so that you can have a proper winter dinner. And when you don't go out, get into winter cooking and make those things for yourself. Make dinner a big deal. Think about all the heart-warming, home-cooked comfort food you can enjoy that would just be all wrong in the heat and solar intensity of high summer. Cosy evenings around the fire. Or the radiator!

Oh, and go skiing/boarding. Seriously. That way you get the best of both worlds (hopefully) - sunshine *and* winter!
posted by Decani at 11:32 AM on November 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

When y'all say get a full-spectrum reptile light, do you mean a fluorescent bulb? Or incandescent? Is that a high enough lux number (some studies have recommended 10000 lux, right?) or is it basically just good enough?

If anyone can direct a link or two to an appropriate and inexpensive full-spectrum bulb, it would be greatly appreciated!
posted by barnone at 12:47 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing getting outside for exercise every day. I lived in Massachusetts for 9 years and dragged myself outdoors at the crack of dawn every day for a walk. Dress appropriately and walk in a park. I lived near the Arboretum, it made a huge difference. I also used to go park in my car in the sun facing water or trees. The car acts like a greenhouse, you can sunbathe and read a book or work on a laptop.
posted by mareli at 1:02 PM on November 8, 2010

Not just vitamin D, but vitamin D3. My doctor was very specific about that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:21 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just took a grad-level nutrition course, and was delighted that Vitamin D was already mentioned here. There's a big debate in the nutrition community over the historic RDA of Vitamin D -- turns out, we're not getting nearly enough. Definitely increase your intake for the winter!

Also, Omega-3s generally make people happier and boost immune systems.
posted by sk932 at 1:25 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Vitamin D explains everything, I took it last year.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 1:36 PM on November 8, 2010

Avoid overeating, especially carbohydrates like breads and pastas or oil/fat laden food. If you tend to feel heavy and lethargic or constantly wanting to eat (despite having eaten enough) in winter, overeating carbohydrates and oil/fats will only make you feel worse.

This may be from personal experience
posted by everyday_naturalist at 3:11 PM on November 8, 2010

When I lived in Denmark, everyone used lots of candles in the winter (and fake electric candles). There's something indescribably cosy about snuggling up in the semi-dark with pretty candles all around in the evening (preferably while drinking hot chocolate or mulled wine). Also, if it's dark in the mornings when you are eating breakfast, laying a pretty table with a colorful tablecloth, candles (tea-lights are good), nice crockery, hot coffee, and a selection of food (even if you don't eat much of it), is heart-warming.

Danes also use a lot of bright primary colours in their winter clothes (scarves and mittens and hats) and in decorative accents around the house (cushion covers, curtains, paint). That too is cheerful in winter.
posted by lollusc at 4:26 PM on November 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

protein-fueled breakfast, exercise first thing in the morning (short and intense is best in winter, at least for me--something that really makes you sweat and pant and feel strong before you take your shower), and um...snuggly sex. and things that make you laugh--watching something funny (cough, 30 Rock) at least a few times a week right before bed fixed me right up last year.
posted by ifjuly at 5:17 PM on November 8, 2010

Music, always, all the time.
Make a playlist yourself, ask friends to share songs, or let iTunes' "Genius" function, or Pandora take an upbeat song that you like and do it for you!
posted by D.Billy at 8:58 PM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Self-employed, usually work at home

Then you are in an ideal situation to work when it's dark and get outside to play when there is light. That might mean rearranging some things, like starting work an hour or two earlier (under sun lamps?) but taking an extra hour or two during the middle of the day to take care of things and just be out under the feeble sun. Walk around, think about things, run (literally) errands. Feed the birds.
posted by pracowity at 12:50 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wanted to throw out vitamin B complex? I've read that niacin intake helps with depression. One thing I've done this year is sign up for a race in March. Its a half marathon and I'll be training with a group every week leading up to the race - which will last the entire winter. I know this may be a crazy way to beat the winter blues, but it provides a challenge as well as an opportunity to connect with others on a regular basis - something we miss during the less active winter. If you're active, you may want to find a race to train for and a running group for that. Thanks for posing this question!
posted by dmbfan93 at 2:23 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wake up earlier, and be awake for the full time the sun is up.
posted by talldean at 5:33 AM on November 10, 2010

Re: Reptile Bulbs -- barnone asked me to come post as I recommended them in another thread. I basically went to PetSmart or the other pet big box store I can't remember the name of and looked in the reptile section for a bulb that would fit the desk lamp I had hanging around and wouldn't cost an arm and a leg.

I got something like this, a bulb that was incandescent, fit a standard lamp, and was broad spectrum. (Incandescent meant it got warm, though if you're warm enough, you could do with fluorescents, or even two fluorescents, one covering the top of the spectrum and the other the bottom, which is what you do with plants when growing them indoors.) The price is right around what I paid, as I recall. I believe the packages at the store had more information about HOW broad the spectrum was and how much UV it let off.

At under $10 I felt like it was okay if I didn't get it perfect on the first try, but the bulb has worked really well for the past three winters!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:57 AM on November 10, 2010 [10 favorites]

Oh yeah, since I originally mentioned the reptile lamp in this thread - my experience has been exactly the same as Eyebrows McGee's. I'm pretty sure that's the exact bulb I have, down to the wattage, and it's lasted me three winters too.

I've never used an "official" light box, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I like it quite a bit. I also like that it generates heat; I pretend I'm working at the beach.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:33 PM on November 10, 2010

Dawn alarm clock. Exercise. And fish oil capsules. Vitamin D didn't do much for me, but frozen fish oil capsules did wonders. (Freeze 'em so you don't get nasty burps later.)
posted by tigerjade at 6:32 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Whether vitamin D helps you or not is very dose dependent. 2,000 IU has been recommended here, but for someone affected with SAD, that is probably too little. Up to 10,000 IU a day is definitely safe -- some people need even more. The only way to be sure is to get tested, which is very worth it.

I'm not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. I had to progressively increase my dose -- none of the standard dosages got my levels into the normal range. When the autumn comes, my serum vitamin D level tanks, even at 5,000 IU a day. I have been struggling with this for over a decade, and have done everything you can imagine. Vitamin D was what finally fixed it. I wish I had known about it sooner.

For more information, have a look at the Grassroots Health website. There are loads of videos, articles, and links to research studies. No flakey pseudo-science here, this is all high-quality work.
posted by rhombus at 7:35 AM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

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