Five Mindful Techniques to Soothe the Ache of Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s that time of year in New England again. Time for leaves crunching beneath our feet, warm sweaters, crisp air and pumpkin-flavored everything. Though many Connecticut residents consider the short and spooky fall season their favorite, not everyone is drinking the apple cider. For the roughly 10-20 percent of Americans affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), autumn signals that winter is soon to follow. With it comes a melancholic drop in mood, sadness and lethargy that can persist until the long-away thaw of spring.

Mindfulness techniques can help those affected by SAD survive the deep chill of winter with their moods and energy intact. Best of all, when we regularly practice mindfulness, we change the wiring of our brain networks in a way that promotes mental health and well-being.

Below are five strategies anyone can practice to ease the pain of SAD this winter season.

Start first thing in the morning.

For those with SAD, mornings are a tough time of day. Our bodies feel heavy and exhausted as we wake up. Before we know it, negative thoughts such as,“Another crummy day ahead,” creep into our minds before we’ve even gotten out of bed.

Using mindfulness as we wake up is a powerful way to alter this pattern. Start with just five deep, intentional belly breaths before reaching for the phone. Pay close attention to the movement of air in the lower abdomen. After several mornings with this routine, add a five-minute body scan meditation before leaving the warmth of the bed. Attending to the body with kindly awareness in this way might just change the course of the whole day.

Choose two warm daily activities to perform mindfully.

Choose two activities to perform each day, and resolve to participate in them mindfully. In the chilly season, it can be helpful to choose activities that have an element of warmth to them, such as mindfully brewing a cup of coffee or tea. Explore every sensory aspect of this experience as if we have never seen such a beverage before. Notice the aroma, feel the steam rise into the nostrils, and the heat radiating through the mug and onto the fingers and palms. Other ideas for daily mindful exploration include a hot shower, eating a warm meal and other activities.

Take a three-minute breathing space.

SAD takes us out of the present moment and carries us into the murky, chaotic and critical world of our thoughts. A three-minute breathing space is a quick tool for returning to the present moment. The meditation is divided into three one-minute exercises and can be performed anywhere.

  • Minute 1: With eyes closed, take a weather report of the mind. Notice the thoughts, emotions and body sensations that are already there.
  • Minute 2: Next, gather the awareness and place it on the breath wherever we most notice it. As thoughts distract us, notice where the mind goes and gently bring the attention back to the breath.
  • Minute 3:Expand the field of awareness to take in the whole body, noticing posture, facial expressions, and any felt sensations or emotions in the body.

Try taking a three-minute breathing space three times per day through the winter to bring an expanded awareness to all the moments of the day.

Practice mindful outdoor walking.

Despite the cold climate, it is very important to spend time outdoors soaking in the vitamin D of the sun, the fresh air and to engage in light cardiovascular exercise. Mindful walking offers a useful way to accomplish this. Choose a relatively flat and familiar route. Bundle up and set out to walk it. When taking steps, direct attention to the sensations in the legs and feet. Notice how the body knows exactly how to take its steps, what the ground beneath the boots feels like, and what it’s like to directly sense the movements.

We might notice our attention getting drawn away to familiar negative thought patterns, perhaps begging us to turn around and go inside or reminding us how tired we feel. This is perfectly normal, and a great opportunity to practice choosing behavior despite the constant clamoring of the mind. Simply thank the brain for trying its best to help us, and gently escort attention back to the movements until the walk is completed.

Try a heated blanket for the body scan meditation.

 Just as beginning our day with mindfulness practice can change the texture of the morning, ending the night with a body scan promotes an easy transition into sleep. Guided body scan meditations can be found on YouTube or in a favorite meditation app. For added effect, pick up a heated blanket and practice the body scan under it. As we move awareness around our body, play with noticing the enhanced sensations warmth at the contact points between the body and the heated blanket.

Chris Carlino is a Hamden-based licensed professional counselor trained in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. He specializes in treating depression, anxiety and general life stress using traditional psychotherapy, philosophy and mindfulness techniques. Connect at ChrisCarlinoLPC.com.