Beat the Winter Blues to Keep Your Recovery on Track

Man sitting on snowy ground

This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, or symptom use. Please use your own discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

Lisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. Whalen’s writing has been featured in several literary journals and edited collections. Her book, Weight Lifted: A Memoir of Hunger, Horses, and Hope, will be published near the end of 2020. For updates and more about Whalen’s writing, visit her website or follow her @LisaIrishWhalen on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Winter is tough, especially in northern states like Minnesota, where 2020 delivered the gloomiest January on record. Meteorologists claim the sun appeared on 3 of January’s 31 days, but I’m skeptical. Maybe I was teaching in windowless classrooms during the sun’s brief peeks from behind gray clouds, but in early February, I couldn’t remember a single yellow ray since mid-December.

What does gloomy weather have to do with eating disorder recovery? For me and many others, a lot.

The Sun’s Impact on Eating Disorder Recovery

People who have eating disorders often have co-occurring mood disorders, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a temporary depression associated with lack of sun. Researchers say it’s caused by a vitamin D deficiency because our skin can only produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. For me, it’s also emotional. Much like the mental-emotional triggers linked to my disordered eating, it seems there is a link in my brain between winter and depression.

Once our brains form neural networks linking one feeling, image, or idea to a behavior, the former can trigger the latter so automatically that we don’t realize what’s happening—the same way certain mental or emotional triggers can become linked with disordered eating.

For me, the desire to binge on carbohydrates is a sign that something is wrong. If I’ve been eating and exercising in healthy amounts, that sign prompts me to look for another cause. Experience has taught me that from December through March, SAD is the next culprit I should suspect.

SAD symptoms and onset can vary, but this list provides a helpful overview.

Treating SAD to Aid Eating Disorder Recovery

Fortunately, SAD is treatable. I’ve compiled a treatment “toolbox” that I draw from according to my schedule and my symptom severity. I’m not a medical professional, but based on research and experience, here’s what I’ve compiled:

  • Warm-Weather Getaway: If you can afford it, spending a few days in a sunny location during January or February makes a world of difference. The year I spent four days in Cancun, Mexico made winter seem short and bearable. Another year I attended a professional conference in San Diego, and since I presented what I learned when I returned to work, my employer paid for my airfare and hotel.
  • Therapy: As with other types of depression, SAD may be treated with various forms of therapy. You may consider traditional talk therapy as a complement or alternative to the less conventional forms of therapy I’ve found effective.
    • Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help you replace negative feelings and thoughts with more positive or neutral ones. With this, you may be able to shift the way you perceive the gloominess you experience in the winter.
    • Light Therapy: Experts disagree as to whether “sun lights” help fight SAD, but I benefit from turning one on for 20-30 minutes after I wake in the morning. Occasionally, I add 20-30 minutes in mid-afternoon to combat a post-lunch slump. The most important criteria are that the lamp is at least 10,000 lux, offers full-spectrum light, and includes UV protection.
    • Hypnotherapy: Though unconventional, hypnosis can be convenient and cost-effective. I use self-hypnosis by paying a one-time fee, downloading an mp3 file to my phone, and then listening to it as much as I want. If you go this route, find a reputable source. I’ve had good luck with Uncommon Knowledge. Its founders, who have impressive credentials in psychology, counseling, and hypnosis, record the hypnosis tracks and are very responsive to feedback. (Plus, they have Scottish and British accents that are a pleasure to listen to.)
  • Exercise: If exercise serves your current recovery, a balanced approach to exercise can aid mental, physical, and emotional health. Its benefits, including a mood boost, last for hours after you’ve stopped moving.
  • Outdoor Adventures: Even in cold, gloomy weather, getting outdoors exposes your skin to sunlight. Combine that with exercise, and you get two benefits at once. Even a walk around the block helps. I often need a push to leave the house, so I like having a scheduled, weekly horseback riding lesson and a volunteer shift walking dogs for the Animal Humane Society. (Nothing cheers me up like dogs because they’re always thrilled to see me . . . along with the treats I provide.) The possibilities are endless: snowshoeing, sledding, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, or simply shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk to get the added mood-lifter of knowing you did something kind.
  • Vitamin D Supplement: I get extra vitamin D from the calcium chews I take with almost every meal. Since I’ve gone vegan, I don’t need them as much (Most non-dairy milk contains more calcium than cow milk.), but they are a pleasant and easy way to prevent osteoporosis as well as SAD, so I continue taking them year-round. A dietitian may help you assess your own nutrition needs.
  • Limiting Social Media: A growing body of research shows that social media can trigger or intensify depression. It can also become addictive. The blue light projected by screens doesn’t provide the benefits of full-spectrum light, and it can alter the body’s natural sleep-wake rhythms, making it harder to fall asleep at night and causing daytime fatigue that triggers depression.

Maintaining recovery depends on maintaining our mental, physical, and emotional health. The tools I’ve provided are a good start, but anyone wondering if they’re suffering from SAD or another form of depression should also consult a doctor.

If you are struggling in eating disorder recovery because of SAD or for any other reason, please reach out to The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977.

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