This article provides concrete, scientifically proven ways to avoid the consequences of seasonal affective disorder SAD — which affects more than 10 million Americans every year, with 6% even requiring hospitalizations — and keep one’s workforce energized through the winter months.
Going into the darkness of winter this year, many of us are already on the brink of anxiety and depressive disorders while living on or beyond our stress thresholds. A study by the CDC compared similar populations from June 2019 and June 2020 for symptoms of anxiety, depression and strain. Anxiety disorders rose from 8.1% in 2019 to 25.5% in 2020; depressive disorders tripled (from 6.5% to 24.3%); and mental strain rose from 30.9% to 40.9%. These numbers continue through 2021.
What this comes down to is that more CEOs, other executive leaders and employees will experience winter blues symptoms for the first time because their coping abilities are already depleted; they are well on their way to SAD.
Winter Blues vs. SAD
The winter blues and SAD both commonly involve:
- Sleep difficulty
- Changes in eating patterns, especially seeking more carbs and comfort foods
- Mood alterations, with an increase in irritability and socially withdrawal
The winter blues come and go throughout a day or week. For the most part, people enjoy their lives and handle their emotions, and few of their family, friends and associates notice.
Then there are those people who consistently (year after year) and permanently (no ebb and flow) suffer from a compounding development of symptoms that definitely do take over their lives and that other people definitely notice. Seasonal affective disorder overwhelms their sense of joy and ability to cope, and treatment becomes necessary.
Find the light. What medical professionals and researchers do know about SAD is that it is very treatable. It relies on finding the light in many forms and threading it into one’s daily routine. Employers encouraging workers to do some of the following will keep up emotional and mental spirits while maintaining strong productivity.
Use the light: a minimum of 30-minutes of sun exposure every day, especially in the morning. Additionally, bright light works as a treatment — it takes one to two weeks of consistent treatment for symptoms to begin to subside, and consistent use of light may prevent relapses throughout the winter.
Posting colorful pictures around one’s home and work area will boost one’s mood, as will dressing in lighter clothing. (Also helpful, if appropriate: coloring one’s hair or painting one’s nails with a vibrant color.)
Create emotional lightness. Threading humor into one’s day will alleviate symptoms; in fact, whether one listens to humor or creates it, laughter is medically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and even physical pain.
Journaling is also a significant help in handling winter blues and the symptoms of SAD; journaling about one’s day and feelings during light therapy renders a double benefit. Also helpful for those suffering for SAD is finding supportive people who can listen to their struggles and empathize with them.
Build strong mental light. Keeping mentally active is a good tactic, not only for distracting one from a depressive mood, but also for boosting self-confidence, energizing conversation, and improving skills. It can be helpful to try to master a new subject through reading and research, take an online course, or try a new hobby.
Those who find themselves slipping into forgetfulness; inattention; and obsessive, repetitive thinking during the winter may find video games helpful. Medical research suggests that video games improve cognition and coping ability while reducing stress and depression. Cooperative games immerse players in an online community, providing the benefits of social interaction.
How much video gaming is too much? Experts vary on their answers, although some consider moderate play of 7 to 10 hours a week optimal for mental health and anything over 10 to be excessive. Most experts agree that one must monitor oneself: One is playing too much if symptoms become worse (one’s sleep and nutrition suffer, for example).
Aim for physical lightness. For most people, winter is the most difficult time to begin a diet, and those who are already stressed and depressed do not need the additional stress of trying to lose weight. But grabbing opportunities to walk outdoors or attempt to learn a winter sport, such as snowshoeing or skiing, can help in maintaining one’s weight.
When carbohydrates beckon, satisfy the craving with whole grains (oatmeal for breakfast, multi-grain bread for toast). Instead of candy and sugar-loaded snacks, try fruits and vegetables, especially those with bright colors. And it may be helpful to talk to a doctor about getting enough Vitamin D; self-dosing is not recommended as too much may overload the body.
Although 2020 brought many events that are out of our control, good health and happiness are within reach if we find the light in the darkness of winter. Light from the sun, emotional light from humor and personal connection, spiritual light from meditation and volunteering, mental light from gaming and education, and physical light from exercise and good nutrition — they all help us cope and enjoy life when winter blues or SAD threaten.
Employers can help those in need additional support, encouraging them to reach out to a family member, friend, co-worker or therapist who understands their efforts. It’s good to remember that springtime always comes again.
Jen Butler, CEO of JB Partners, is the creator of Get SMaRT- Stress Management and Resilience Training for the workplace. Their SMaRT Club learning platform is the leading, self-guided tool for all companies looking to reduce stress and increase profits. Jen also travels throughout the United States to provide business leaders with one-on-one, onsite guidance in managing stress, turning around their business, and achieving real, long-lasting results.