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It's time to change the clocks: Here's how to prevent the winter blues

It's time to change the clocks: Here's how to prevent the winter blues
Time to "fall back." (CatLane / Getty Images / iStockphoto)

It’s time to change the clocks this weekend, which means dark early evenings and winter chills will soon be in full swing.

So while we prepare our fall wardrobe, we also need to prepare for a change in mood. Some even experience SAD — short for seasonal affective disorder, a depression common to the outset of shorter sunlit days.

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Notably, Angelenos are not exempt. The subtle change in temperatures combined with time spent indoors is enough to interfere with brain chemistry. “I’ve had many patients come to me where their depression is increased around the fall,” says Los Angeles-based psychologist John Tsilimparis.

So here are five expert-backed tips for dealing with the time change — and preventing the winter blues.

1. Wake early and exercise

Just one less hour of light per day is enough to throw your body’s internal clock off, creating fatigue or irritability; some compare it to jet lag. This shift in circadian rhythm is the primary reason people experience SAD, says Tsilimparis. So just like your body adjusts to new time zones, it can do the same with the end of daylight saving time.

Simply put, “Sleep during the dark hours and be up during the light hours.” Engage in your typical evening activities in the early morning — such as catching up on work or an outdoor run. Exercise (ideally outside to get that perceived-light effect) is highly effective in getting your endorphins going, which is important during the sedentary season.

Get up and go.
Get up and go. (UIG via Getty Images)

2. Consider light therapy

SAD is a psychological and physiological condition. When your eyes perceive light, the brain releases serotonin, getting you energized and ready for movement, says Tsilimparis. “When your eyes perceive darkness, other chemicals like melatonin are released, getting you ready for sleep and bringing your mood down.”

Phototherapy, or light therapy, helps your brain release serotonin (hence why we feel refreshed after basking in the sun). “And even if the sun is not shining, your eyes have to see brightness, not darkness.” Try sitting next to a lightbox, a window or go outside in the sunlight for 45 minutes a day, he recommends. “Just like a flower turns to the sun, human beings have to be in light.” Also, what better excuse to take a trip to a sun-drenched location?

3. Get vitamin D and antioxidants

“What we are feeding ourselves is more important than we ever used to believe,” says Jenny Giblin, a therapist who uses wellness to help treat anxiety and depression. The digestive system is like a second brain, with a majority of serotonin made in the gut. Food is a vital tool to get you out of the dumps, she adds.

Try a high-quality vitamin D supplement, which science suggests can help regulate our mood. Also, because a weak immune system has been shown to trigger depression, get plenty of nutrient-dense superfoods rich in antioxidants. Or, as a nifty trick, add a greens supplement to your water, suggests Giblin.

4. Manage holiday expectations

For some the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year, but for others it’s a nightmare. Mandatory time with provocative family members or the jabbing realization that life hasn’t turned out the way you wanted can conjure up negative emotion. “Think about the people who don’t have family or who don’t have a partner during the holidays,” says Tsilimparis. “It is a very sad time for people.”

Considering that three major holidays occur in one season, it’s no surprise people can spiral into sadness. “I can tell you as a therapist, it’s like tax season for us,” says Santa Monica-based psychologist Ramani Durvalusa.

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Tsilimparis advises to manage expectations and set boundaries. Keep family visits to a limit and instead make your holiday a self-care vacation. “There’s nothing wrong asking for alone time.”

Taking in the decorations at South Coast Plaza
Taking in the decorations at South Coast Plaza ((Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times))

5. Be mindful

Meditation has become a lifeline for people struggling with anxiety and depression. Even just 5 to 10 minutes can deliver resulting positivity — a refuge on rainy days.

Also, brain scans show that practicing gratitude can rewire our reticular activating system. “The area of our mind that focuses on good versus bad,” says Giblin. Once you wake up, instead of focusing on your to-do list, think of three things you’re grateful for, then get out of bed.

And remember to ask for help, Tsilimparis emphasizes. “Don’t blow off your symptoms, reach out to a therapist or talk to people that you trust.”

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