I knew that the transition would be difficult when I moved to Maine a few years ago. Maine is (by far) the farthest north I’d ever lived and I suspected that dealing with the notorious Nor’easters and blizzards would be a lot to handle.
As it turns out, they weren’t actually that bad (I just bought a snowblower). But one thing that I didn’t really anticipate was how much shorter the days are during the winter. According to the United States Naval Observatory, where I live in Maine gets just under 9 hours of daylight in mid-December just before the winter solstice. This means that well over half of the day is lived in the dark. This was definitely not something that I had prepared for.
But, with a little work (and some help from science), I finally gotten used to it. Here are 5 effective ways you can also beat the winter blues.
1. Head toward the light
I know everyone makes the case for why sunlight is important, but besides being the basic building block of all life on the planet Earth, humans require sunlight psychologically. Exposure to the sun releases a hormone called serotonin, which helps people to stay focused, calm, and content. On the other hand, darkness triggers the release of a hormone called melatonin, which makes us lethargic and sleepy.
Sadly, going to bed at 4:30 in the afternoon in December isn’t always an option. And if our serotonin levels dip low enough, we become susceptible to a form of depression known as SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. While SAD can be treated by seeking out natural light and with products like light therapy lamps, specialty lightbulbs, and dawn simulators, there are plenty of ways to deal with the winter doldrums, even in the darkest winter months.
Spring forward…even in the winter
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2. Avoid SAD by sweating it out
Make sure you’re getting plenty of exercise. Exercise is important for all the reasons that you probably already know, but it’s also wonderful specifically for the melatonin cascade of long winter nights because you flood your body with the endorphins needed to stave off the affects of SAD.
You’ll feel great afterwards and the psychological effects are cumulative. Of course, a great way to double up on endorphin-sunlight is to find time to exercise during the day, even if it’s just going for a walk in the late morning or during your lunch break.
3. Go bigger at breakfast
Closely related to exercise is eating the right kinds of foods at the right time. Structuring your diet so that you’re eating the most in the morning and the least in the evenings is a good way to ease your body into sleep and keep SAD in check. It’s also better for your body in general.
It can be tough to stick to fruits and vegetables during the winter since so many items are out of season and comfort food feels so appealing when it’s cold outside. But what you eat has a profound effect on your mood. If you can, avoid drinking too much alcohol and caffeine and make sure you’re getting plenty of whole grains and healthy fatty acids from things like fish. And, as a bonus, some dark chocolate now and then can also be an endorphin booster.
4. Don’t sleep on your sleep
One of the most difficult tricks for staying healthy and productive during the winter months is making sure to stay on a regular sleep schedule. When it’s dark outside early, it’s very easy to lose track of time and either wake up too early or go to bed too late. Getting enough sleep is a vital part of staving off depression, and if the sun isn’t around for you to help manage your sleep schedule, there are plenty of sleep apps out there than can lend a digital hand.
5. Don’t hibernate — ice skate
Probably the one thing for me that’s helped me avoid SAD and stay productive through the winter is making sure that I actually get outside! Even if it’s cold, even if it’s snowy, it’s important to get out, stay active, and enjoy the sunshine whenever possible.
If you live somewhere where winter is real — with tons of snow and much shorter days — try to seek out some sort of winter sports culture or activities. Go snowshoeing on the weekend. Try skiing. Maybe there’s an outdoor ice skating rink in your town. (It’s also more effective than working out indoors.) Whatever you do, don’t spend the entire winter in hibernation.
It took me a couple of years to adjust to the dramatic winters of northern New England, but if I can do it anyone can. There’s no reason to feel like a prisoner to the weather. Exercise, eat well, and instead of dreading the snow, get out there and enjoy it!
Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Maine. His work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Bookforum, Dublin Review of Books, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter here.