How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Digital Age

Four tips to help you look beyond the screen and beat the winter blues.

Posted Dec 30, 2020

Fabrice Villard/Unsplash
Source: Fabrice Villard/Unsplash

In days gone by, the bare-limbed trees, long nights, and shorter days of winter signaled that the time had come to slow down. Historically, winter would signal to some people to retreat to their cozy dwellings and sustain themselves on foods harvested and preserved in the fall. They passed the time in peaceful reflection or absorbed themselves in productive indoor hobbies, but we worked and lived in rhythm with the sun — meaning that winter allowed us more time to rest and restore.

Of course, most civilizations haven’t enjoyed this seasonal respite since the Industrial Revolution. But winter in the Digital Age is an altogether different story. Armed with instantaneous connectivity and a superabundance of information in the palm of our hand, we trudge ahead with our busy social lives and taxing workloads, ignoring the profound effects that winter can have on our bodies and minds.

As the nights grow longer, our bodies produce more melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep patterns. Increased melatonin means we feel more lethargic. At the same time, less sunlight exposure means that our bodies generate less vitamin D, which is essential to the production of serotonin or the “happy hormone.”

These physiological changes can cause our moods to plummet too. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of seasonal depression associated with the shorter days of winter. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about half a million Americans experience SAD each year, while up to 20% report milder "winter blues."

The problem is that as the temperature drops and these seasonal doldrums set in, we tend to crave effortless stimulation and instant gratification. So we binge on Netflix or holiday sweets or social media. When our bodies and brains are feeling sluggish, it’s easy to turn to a mind-numbing miniseries, cookies, or Instagram scrolling. Yet none of these indulgences improve our mood in the long term. 

How, then, can we counter the winter blues in ways that will genuinely uplift and energize us?

Here are 4 tips to help you look beyond the screen and counter seasonal affective disorder.

1. Move

According to a large meta-study on the habits of over a million participants, people who sit for extended periods of time on a daily basis are more likely to develop high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer...the list goes on. Yet the average American spends at least half of their waking hours sitting: working at a computer, watching TV, or driving. As James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, said, "Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death."

Movement is great medicine – both for the body and the mind — and you don’t need strenuous exercise to boost your endorphins either. Walks – preferably in a natural setting — can do the trick too. Despite the winter weather, try taking micro-breaks throughout the day to get outside to stretch your legs. 5-minute walks, especially near water, can boost your mood all day long. If you can walk with a loved one or a friend, all the better.

2. Connect

Now more than ever, we rely on social media to feel connected to friends, loved ones, and the world at large. While it has proved an invaluable platform to maintain our relationships through a pandemic, social media alone does not replace heartfelt conversation, nor does it elevate our moods this dark time of year. 

We don’t often acknowledge the heavy toll social media can take on our mental health. As countless studies have shown, heavy social media use is correlated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, especially among young people. Yet these platforms are intentionally designed to be as addictive as possible with some scientists comparing them to alcohol or nicotine

So how do we kick our social media habit and genuinely connect with others, especially in a post-COVID world?

Do social beyond social media. In an era of texting and tweets, picking up the phone can feel unreasonably awkward. But our text-happy world also means that a random phone call from a friend or colleague who genuinely wants to know how you are doing is that much more meaningful and uplifting.

You can get more comfortable with phone calls by making it a habit. Based on my own intuitive experiences — and corroborated by research out of the University of Rochester — I advise my clients to make regular Good News Calls with a friend or colleague. The intent here is for you to encourage a friend to share good news and then to actively listen, to be genuinely encouraging, and to ask good questions. The benefits come from listening, not just from your sharing.

These calls can last only 10 minutes, though their effects last much longer. In related studies, both the listeners and speakers report feeling as if time stretches like a good summer afternoon. They feel more generous, and they feel more hopeful.

3. Make

There’s something primal and rewarding about digging our hands into clay, carving wood, or weaving thread. Direct your attention toward an endeavor that puts your hands to work. 

The psychological benefits here are twofold. First, when we work with our hands we give our brains a chance to relax — though our brains will continue unconsciously working on the problems vexing us while we’re engaged in these “mindless” tasks. Second, such crafting is shown to improve mood, reduce stress, encourage mindfulness, and enhance overall well-being. In fact, craft courses have been prescribed as therapy since the late 19th century. 

Certain studies from the psychologist JW Pennebaker demonstrate that writing expressively, even about traumatic events, can be therapeutic. Another study suggests that working with clay as a means to work through grief also can give people hope in ways that psychoanalysis cannot. The effort, multi-sensory engagement, repetitive actions, and anticipatory satisfaction involved in making something all correlate with the release of neurotransmitters that promote pleasure. 

Try picking up a hobby that activates your imagination or craft mind. Whether it’s baking, knitting, woodwork, or gardening, these activities are a potent form of self-care that can have a profound effect on our overall well being.

4. Ignite

As kids, we don’t consciously plan how we will — or should — spend our time. We are instinctively drawn to the activities that light us up and ignite our passions. What we don’t realize is that, when practiced consistently, these same activities — whether it's building mud houses or playing dress-up — can bring forth our innate talents and reveal our “Young Genius” as I like to call it. 

This term is inspired by Classic Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, who believed that we are each born with a distinct force of character called a daimon or “genius.” If we regularly honor and recognize this force of character, they believed it would lead us to our most excellent and fulfilling life.

So imagine back to when you were seven or eight, nine, or ten. See your young self making, exploring, creating worlds. In what instances did you feel free and at your unique best? Regardless of circumstances — good or bad — every child (no matter how young or old) has this capacity to create their own sanctuary.

With compassion, play a movie in your mind in which you see your Young Genius act, relating, making. Then, write down the three adjectives that describe your Young Genius.

Creative? Caring? Curious? Responsive? Compassionate? Adventurous? Daring?  Courageous? Daydreamy? Bold? Quiet? Clever? Choose the top three.

Now, here’s the habitual practice: Each morning, commit to bringing those Young Genius Traits to work with you. Keep them written down in a notebook, a planner, or a journal. With this intentional act, recognize the force of character that will guide the best quality of your intentions, actions, creations, and relations each day.

References

A. Abdel-Baki, S., YA. Ahmed, M., M. Alhajji, S., M. Alvarez-Jimenez, S., M. Alvarez-Jimenez, J., M. Alvarez-Jimenez, S., Ybarra, M. (1970, January 01). Social Media and Mental Health: Benefits, Risks, and Opportunities for Research and Practice. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41347-020-00134-x

Ekelund, U., Steene-Johannessen , J., Brown,   J., Fagerland, M. W., Owen,  , Powell, K. E., . . . Lee, I. (2016, July 28). Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27475271/

Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017, September 07). Exercise and mental health. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378512217308563

Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2007, January). (PDF) Expressive Writing, Emotional Upheavals, and Health. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/253937612_Expressive_Writing_Emotional_Upheavals_and_Health

Reis, H. T., Smith, S. M., Carmichael, C. L., Caprariello, P. A., Tsai, F., Rodrigues, A., & Maniaci, M. R. (2010). Are you happy for me? How sharing positive events with others provides personal and interpersonal benefits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 311-329. doi:10.1037/a0018344

Seasonal Depression (SAD): Symptoms & Treatments. (2020, December 7). Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression

Vert, C., Gascon, M., Ranzani, O., Márquez, S., Triguero-Mas, M., Carrasco-Turigas, G., . . . Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2020, June 19). Physical and mental health effects of repeated short walks in a blue space environment: A randomised crossover study. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935120307076?via=ihub