Cost-Effective Strategies for Handling and Preventing the Winter Blues / Seasonal Affective Disorder

I want to start off by telling you a story, one that I’ve brought up in bits and pieces in the past on The Simple Dollar, but on the event of this most recent switch from Daylight Savings Time to regular time, I woke up one morning this week feeling the first real whispers of the winter blues, and I felt like it was time to discuss it in full. So, let’s start there.

My Winter Blues

Ever since I was a kid, I would go through periods of mild melancholy in the winter months. I didn’t want to go outside if at all possible and barely wanted to get out of bed on winter weekends, preferring to camp out with books. My parents – particularly my father – responded to this by making me go outside, practically doing everything short of dragging me outside. At the time, it just felt like a hoop I was jumping through.

When I went to college, this feeling went away for a while. The winter blues really didn’t bother me at all in college and, looking back, it was because I was forced to spend quite a bit of time outside walking around, often with a heavy backpack. I usually lived miles from my classes and would walk there, toting books and notebooks in my backpack, and I honestly got into the best shape of my life during my college years because of that and other exercise efforts.

After college, I got a full time job in a research lab and I began to notice it again. I remember this a lot more clearly. I mostly just felt somewhat exhausted all throughout the winter months, from about mid-November to maybe mid-March or so. During the spring, summer, and fall, I would always feel energetic, loading my days with all kinds of things, but when November rolled around, it would feel like I fell half asleep all the time.

For several years in a row, I had to travel to San Diego in January for work, and it was a godsend. I didn’t really put two and two together at the time, but I would leave for those trips feeling like garbage and come back feeling like a million bucks. The reason was simple – I would spend a ton of time outside there. I found over and over again that I would feel like trash at the start of that week, but by mid-week, I felt great again, and that great feeling would carry on for a few weeks after getting back.

Again, I didn’t really pick up on the pattern at the time. I see it clearly now as I look back on old journal entries and so on, but at the time I just felt down and mostly just pressed through it.

That all changed when I decided to switch to writing The Simple Dollar full time. This was mostly motivated by a desire to be more involved with and available for my children and wife, along with some secondary work frustrations. At first, the change was amazing, but it led to the single worst winter of my life.

During that first winter in which I was working from home, I genuinely thought I was dying. Everything was a giant fog. I had zero energy – zilch. It took almost everything I had to get out of bed most mornings and do the absolute minimum I needed to keep The Simple Dollar going with any kind of posting schedule. Some days, I literally don’t know how I did it.

On Christmas Day, I fell asleep on the floor of our laundry room. For four days in a row in January, I slept from 7:30 PM to about 7 AM, got my kids to preschool, blurted out the absolute most minimum writing I could for The Simple Dollar, and promptly fell asleep on the couch from about 10 AM to about 5 PM, only to repeat it again. Yep, 19 hours of sleep a day. That’s not good.

I finally went to the doctor and he ran a bunch of tests on me, informing me that the only real things wrong with me that he could tell were low vitamin B and vitamin D levels. He encouraged me to take supplements and to go outside as much as I possibly could. He wasn’t 100% sure what was wrong, but seasonal affective disorder was among his suspicions (his main suspicion was mononucleosis, but I never got it confirmed). He did suggest referring me to a psychologist, a referral that I didn’t follow up on.

I went home and researched the things he suggested and realized that my symptoms were all severe versions of seasonal affective disorder – the winter blues. It all matched perfectly:

* Oversleeping
* Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
* Weight gain
* Tiredness or low energy
* Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
* Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
* Having low energy
* Feeling sluggish or agitated
* Having difficulty concentrating
* Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty

That almost perfectly described how I had been feeling for months, and I wanted it to stop. So, at that time, I threw everything I could at fixing it, throwing cost to the wind. We were in good financial shape then, so it wasn’t too bad. Here are some of the stuff I tried:

* I installed a ton of full spectrum lighting in every part of the house where I spent any time.
* I set up a full spectrum light off to the right of my computer screen.
* I took the best vitamin B and vitamin D supplements I could find.
* I tried meditation for the first time (it didn’t really click then, but it did click later on in life for different reasons).
* I joined a gym and hired a physical trainer so I would have an appointment to get out of the house and move around.
* I scheduled lunches with a bunch of people so that I would, again, have to get out of the house and move around and socialize.

Some of that stuff, as you might note, is kind of expensive. We’ll get back to that in a bit.

What I noticed was that those things, in a big pile, really seemed to help, and spring arrived pretty quickly thereafter, which always helps.

The following winter, I repeated all of the tactics and while I still felt it mildly, it wasn’t the misery of the previous winter. It felt more like the winters when I was working outside the home – rough but tolerable.

Over the years since, I’ve tried to hone what works and what doesn’t, trying to keep the costs as low as possible while still minimizing the effects of the winter blues on my life. I now know that it almost perfectly coincides with the end of Daylight Savings Time in November and it usually starts winding down when Daylight Savings Time returns in mid-March. That abrupt clock shift usually means that my time outside in the evening in which sunlight is still in effect is instantly significantly reduced, and I can feel the change.

So, after a decade of tinkering around with this and still wanting to be an active and energetic person in the winter without spending tons of money on lights and trainers and other things, here are ten tactics I actually use each and every winter to keep seasonal affective disorder in check.

If you get the winter blues, even if they haven’t kicked in yet, I recommend starting on these things now rather than later. It’s better to start with these things before the winter blues start hitting you.

Get a “Wellness Visit” with Your Doctor

This is simply a check to make sure you’re in good all-around health before winter sets in. Mention to your doctor that you’re prone to the winter blues. Your doctor will probably do some general blood work and make sure that your various vitamin, mineral, and hormone levels are in the normal range.

Many health insurance policies cover a free regular (usually annual) wellness checkup with your doctor, as it’s far cheaper for the policy to cover that and have medical issues discovered when they’re minor than to wait around until they’re a crisis, so the expense of this should be tiny under most medical insurance policies.

Put Some Full Spectrum Light Bulbs in Your Home

Full spectrum lighting is a very effective push in the right direction for me. If the lights in most of the areas I spend time in my house emit full spectrum light, it really helps me to keep the blues at bay all winter long.

I wouldn’t change nearly all the bulbs in your house to full spectrum bulbs, just the ones that you use most often. Figure out three to five lights in your home that you’re frequently around and switch those bulbs out for full spectrum bulbs. If you need to switch a few more for lighting consistency, that’s fine.

Outside of wintertime, you can switch back to your old normal bulbs in those sockets and save the full spectrum bulbs for winter. Because full spectrum bulbs are a little more expensive than regular bulbs, maximizing the lifespan of both types can really minimize the cost of using full spectrum bulbs during the winter.

Set Up a Lamp Near Your Workspace, Put a Bright Full Spectrum Bulb In It, and Leave It On All the Time When You’re Working

If you work in an office environment, set up a lamp near your computer monitor and put a full spectrum bulb in that lamp. Set it just off to the side so that you’re not staring right at it, but that it’s quite noticeable out of the corner of your eye.

Again, for me, this is a nice brain trick that tells my brain that there’s still tons of sunlight around. It activates whatever some of the photoreceptors in my eye are looking for to keep appropriate chemical signals going around in my body. In other words, it makes a pretty big impact when it comes to keeping my mind unclouded during the winter months.

You can use any ordinary small lamp for this – check out your local secondhand shop. A single full spectrum bulb will work, too.

What about a light box? A light box is often recommended for people with the winter blues. It’s basically a modified fluorescent lamp that you sit on your desk near where you’re looking most of the time, much like the lamp above. The big difference is that there are reflective surfaces inside the box so that the full spectrum light is all directed outwards. I have one – I bought it during my spending spree on stuff to help my seasonal affective disorder when I first figured it out – but, quite honestly, I haven’t pulled it out in a couple of years. The two full spectrum lights near my desk – one off to the side of my monitor and the other directly over the desk – seem to produce most of the same benefits. Though it is helpful, so is simply getting some full spectrum light bulbs, so I wouldn’t invest in this.

Eat Plenty of Fish, Cheese, and Eggs

These are natural sources of vitamin D, which is something that your body often lacks in the winter months if you’re not getting outside very much.

Rather than buying vitamin supplements, you’re going to pick up the vitamins more effectively if you just make sure that these items are already in your diet. Your body picks up vitamins quite well from food, provided you are eating things with that particular vitamin already in it.

Fish, cheese, and eggs are all pretty solid sources for vitamin D, so make room in your diet for all of these. Have a tuna melt every once in a while. Enjoy some scrambled eggs for breakfast. Have salmon for dinner. You don’t have to live off of these things, but make sure that they’re in your diet during the winter months.

Eat Plenty of Beef and Fish and Drink Fortified Milk

Much as the above items are good sources of natural vitamin D, these are good sources of natural vitamin B12, which is another item your body can struggle with under normal winter conditions.

Again, rather than buying vitamin supplements, just eat foods that are riches in B12. Beef, fish, and fortified milk are all good sources for these that you can add to your normal shopping list. Fish is particularly good because it’ll help you double dip on both of these vitamins that you need.

So have a big piece of salmon for dinner or some tuna salad for lunch. Eat a hamburger or a steak once in a while. Put some fortified milk (read the label) on your cereal and have it for breakfast. Again, you don’t have to include these things daily in your diet, but regular consumption is good.

Eat a Ton of Fruits and Vegetables and Whole Grains

Your body is a complex machine, one that evolved over the years to enjoy an omnivorous diet mostly made up of plants – fruits, vegetables, grains, and so on.

One of the most valuable things I’ve figured out in the last several winters is that it makes a huge difference in my overall energy level to eat a really good diet, one that’s mostly vegetables and fruits and whole grains with other things merely complementing that stuff. If your plate is mostly vegetables and actual whole grains with other stuff on it, you’re doing it right. If your plate is mostly well-seasoned basic stuff rather than really processed stuff, you’re doing it right.

Just eat the stuff you like that falls under that umbrella. Figure out which vegetables you like in a variety of colors and eat those a lot. Eat a lot of different fruits for snacks. It will really help your energy level because your body is getting the wide variety of nutrients it craves, something we often miss out on a little with the modern diet, and it seems to really help me the most in the winter.

Just eat good stuff and it will help, I promise.

Keep Every Window in Your House Uncovered During Daylight Hours to Let in Maximum Sunlight

You want to let maximum sunlight into your house during the winter months, and the way to do that is to open every curtain and open all the blinds in every area of your house during the day. You can – and should – close them at night to help with interior heat retention, but during the day, you want natural sunlight brightness flooding in the window.

This is even true on cloudy days, as a lot of the sun’s indirect rays will still bounce into your home.

Just make it a routine. When you get up in the morning, open all the window coverings. When it’s definitely night out, close them all. It’s pretty easy.

Pencil in a Daytime Walk Outdoors of at Least 30 Minutes – and Make It Mandatory

This needs to be on your calendar, even if it seems like the worst thing in the world. At some point during the daytime hours, go on a walk outside for at least 30 minutes. Do this during your lunch break if that’s the only time when there’s daylight – tell your boss that if you don’t get at least a little bit of sun, you’re going to go crazy. If you have some daylight hours before or after work, do it then.

Make it daily and mandatory. You go on a walk, no questions asked.

Doing this ensures that you’re getting some sunshine in your eyes and on at least some of your skin, which is an incredibly powerful remedy for the winter blues. The winter blues really develop when you get minimal natural sunshine in your eyes and on your skin.

Not only that, the act of going on a walk will make a huge difference. The simple exercise will do a lot to naturally lift your mood while the sunlight is helping you with other aspects of internal biochemistry. A daily walk helps in multiple dimensions.

(This doesn’t mean to go on walks with minimal clothing. Bundle up appropriately for the weather. Just make sure your walk is at least 30 minutes long.)

Schedule Lots of Social Events Outside the Home

This is more of a general counter to melancholy or mild depression, something that the winter blues definitely lines up with. Put lots of social events on your calendar outside of your home so that you have to go somewhere to visit people. (Having some social events at home are fine, but have plenty outside the home, too.)

Again, this forces you to go outside and move around, but it also makes you spend social time with people. Humans are social creatures and even the most introverted among us get some value from face-to-face social time which can’t be replicated with texting or social media.

Check out Meetup and go to some events. If you’re a member of a religious organization, start going to the services. Call up some friends and do something inexpensive together, even if it’s just something like a potluck dinner party and game night at someone’s house. Just find a way to see other people in a purely social setting, and do it away from home.

Set a Standard Bedtime and Wakeup Time and Stick to Them

Part of the problem of having the sun only up in the sky for a few hours each day is that it encourages us to just roll over and stay in bed. It’s easier to have your bedtime slide earlier and earlier and to just camp out in bed later and later in the morning. That in itself can lead to the winter blues due to oversleeping.

Don’t let yourself fall into that. Schedule a tight bedtime and wakeup time and do your best to stick to those every day. Let yourself get a healthy seven or eight hours, but don’t let it drag on. Get up when it’s time to get up.

Final Thoughts

It’s this mix of things that makes a real difference for me in terms of being able to survive the winter blues. There have been times when the winter blues have been very rough on me in the past, and because I’ve figured out how to handle it over the years in a cost-effective way, it’s simply become something that I can just roll through.

I usually feel the first hints of it after the November clock shift and that was absolutely true this week, so I’m making sure these things are all a part of my life.

I’ll be fine, and you will be, too.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.