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Recently I have been experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety, to the point where it was affecting my health. My initial reaction is to feel hesitant to share my struggles with others, because I fall into the stigma of thinking that I need to look perfect all of the time, and I feel weak when I am being vulnerable. But vulnerability is not a weakness. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a sign of strength. Feeling down doesn’t make you a failure, and it’s okay to not be okay. Needing help does not make you weak. If I only share the good and keep the bad to myself, then I am not being real, and I’m not being helpful. And this is the time of year when many people are affected by these types of feelings.
This is the time of the year when I usually start to feel the “winter blues,” or what is also called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Many people start to feel it between November and January, and there are more than 3 million cases per year. For people like me, who have suffered depression and anxiety in the past, it can be a really exhausting battle that makes us feel emotionally and mentally drained. The reason more people are affected this time of year may be due to the shorter days and decreased sunlight, which can disrupt your mental clock, drop your serotonin levels and disrupt the body’s melatonin levels. This can lead to depression, sleeplessness and low energy levels.
And sometimes it may be just the stress and memories of the holidays that causes us to feel down. For me, I tend to get extremely nostalgic and long for the days of being a kid again, where everything was magical, and I didn’t have to worry about how my bank account was going to suffer from all of the Christmas gifts, or gaining weight from all of the treats. I just had to worry about being good for Santa Claus.
After suffering through this for a few years, I have found various natural ways to help alleviate some of the symptoms, and am able to enjoy the holiday season a little more. As a disclaimer, these are all of the things that I have personally found helpful, and you should not take any of this as medical advice. I would recommend talking to your primary care physician prior to taking any supplements or herbs to see if it is safe for you.
Light therapy is frequently used for SAD treatment, and can be very effective. Light therapy is also used for sleep disorders, jet lag and depression that isn’t seasonal. You can buy a light therapy lamp online, this is the one that I use. You sit about 2 feet away from the full spectrum light, which shines indirectly in your eyes. It mimics natural light, which can trigger chemicals in your brain that help regulate your mood. From Harvard’s Health Blog it says “Bright light works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms. Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms.”
Getting in some form of exercise is great for releasing endorphins and helping your energy level. Taking a short, 20 minute walk during the day can be helpful. If it’s too cold outside, try to motivate yourself to go to the gym, or do a home workout. I find that going for a nice, long walk or a hike in nature can be very stress-relieving.
I heard about 5-HTP a few months ago and started incorporating it into my supplements. 5-HTP, or 5-Hydroxytryptophan is a chemical by-product of L-trytophan that your body converts to serotonin. 5-HTP is used to treat depression, anxiety, sleep disorders. I take this brand before bed and it helps me sleep through the night. I also noticed that I was able to recall my dreams more often when I take it.
Magnesium is a great supplement to take, especially for athletes, since strenuous exercise can increase magnesium requirements, and magnesium is necessary to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP–the energy currency of our cells). It aids in muscle recovery. But the main reason I love taking magnesium this time of year is for it’s effect on sleep. Restless sleep and waking frequently during the night could be a result of low magnesium levels. Magnesium will help maintain healthy levels of GABA, an amino acid made in the brain (low levels of GABA can also be linked to anxiety, and also make it difficult to relax). I take Natural Calm before bed and it really helps put me to sleep and relax. Magnesium is a great supplement that I take year-round.
I know how difficult it is this time of the year to reach for the sweets, since pies and cookies are in abundance, but some studies have shown that those with higher blood sugar levels were at greater risk for depression. Sugar may give you a brief high, but after that initial dopamine release the negative effects will set in (cue that 2:30 crash). Also, this time of year the decreased temperatures can weaken the immune system, and sugar further weakens the immune system by reducing how white blood cells perform. Feeling under-the-weather can have an impact on your behavior and mood. Try to limit yourself when it comes to the holiday sweets, and your body will love you more.
Some studies have shown that people with SAD had low levels of Vitamin D, so a Vitamin D supplement may be beneficial, especially since our exposure to the sun’s rays declines this time of the year. Taking Vitamin D can also help to boost your immune system, which can become weaker with decreased temperatures.
Sometimes just getting out and being more social can be a big help in getting myself out of a funk. I am naturally an introverted person, but I find that around this time of the year it really helps to have more social outlets. It may be harder to socialize when you are feeling down, but making an effort to connect with others can be a big help. Others can offer support or shared laughter to give you a boost. I love Meetup.com, you can find various meetup groups in your area. I have made some good connections through Meetup, and found some fun activities that I wouldn’t have normally done on my own.
Utilizing mind-body techniques can be helpful for relaxation and feeling more grounded. Things such as yoga, meditation, art therapy, music therapy, deep breathing, and guided imagery can help guide your mind to reach a higher level of peace. I like to use Calm, which has some guided meditations. Thins that I also find helpful for me personally are listening to positive or soothing music, playing the piano, or photography. Also, Yoga with Adrienne is a great YouTube channel for yoga at home!
Not everyone will respond the same way to specific supplements and vitamins. You should definitely consult with a medical professional before taking any supplements, especially if you are already taking other medication. I do not recommend taking too many supplements together. Ask your doctor what may be helpful for you in your specific case and if there are any drug interactions.
If you are suffering through symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression, know that you are not alone, and that it does not make you weak. It can be easy to fall into the thought process that vulnerability is a sign of weakness, but it is just the opposite. Don’t compare yourself to others, because everyone deals with things differently. Invalidating your emotions just makes things worse. When we negate our emotions and start thinking that it’s not okay to feel the way we do, it just digs a deeper hole. It’s okay not to be okay, and asking for help is a sign of strength.