As the coolness of autumn settles around us like colorful, falling leaves, we all know that winter is fast approaching. This change of seasons isn't a problem for most people: they relish the pumpkin lattes and apple picking for a month and then bundle up in scarves with peppermint mochas once the snow begins to fall. However, for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), this fading of warmth and light can bring on feelings of pessimism, lethargy, and hopelessness.
SAD is a form of clinical depression, but is different in that it usually runs like clockwork, in time with the changing of the seasons. Usually, that means people with SAD experience changes in their mood or behavior in fall and winter, but in lesser instances, it can occur in the spring and summer.
Because SAD is a disorder that is recognized in the field of psychology, if you are diagnosed with SAD you can form your own plan of action to combat its symptoms. Sometimes this involves light therapy, psychotherapy, or medication. In addition to that, many people with SAD make changes to their lifestyle to attempt a more 'natural' evasion of those negative feelings that come along with SAD. That does not mean you should only seek out an all-natural approach to SAD, as the benefits of seeking professional help are numerous. However supplementing any treatment with exercise and time outdoors is also a positive thing.
Even if you are not personally affected by SAD, it is highly likely that somebody you know is. Around 4-6% of the adult American population has been diagnosed with SAD, and closer to 20% of adults experience subsyndromal SAD (or S-SAD). S-SAD is typically thought of as the winter blues, and while those with S-SAD to feel a slight change in their mood in the winter months, it isn't as extreme as people with SAD. In addition to those labelled disorders, it is important to recognize that everybody who lives in a place that experiences a change in seasons will feel affected by the environmental differences in winter. The sun isn't out for as long, making the days feel shorter, and the weather is colder, which means outdoor activity (or any activity) is more difficult and less likely to occur.
Both of those things--exercise and light--are important to maintaining a healthy mind and body. For people with SAD or S-SAD, they may find themselves trapped in a cycle of becoming depressed at the lack of light and activity, and then feel less inclined to be active. Whatever your mental health requires, there is definitely no harm in taking a little more time this fall to get outside with friends and family and be active.
Hiking is especially beautiful in the fall, when the leaves are bright hues and the sunshine can warm you up enough to not feel that October chill through your sweatshirt. To find a place to hike near your college campus with friends, take a look at alltrails.com. They allow you to log in with Facebook and search for rated trails based on your area. There's also an app, which gives you the ability to search for the trail head in google maps. Also check to see if your college has an Outdoors Club, because they'll know all the best places to go!
Hiking is something my friends and I love to do, because when the terrain isn't too rough, you can talk, and the views make for some great photo opportunities. In regards to SAD, hiking is a great social activity which can help reverse the inclination to stay inside. Bringing along a picnic, a camera, music, or a dog (if you know someone with one!) are all things that can make a hike seem more appealing or feasible if you have a tough time motivating yourself to get out there and get active!
Biking can be difficult if you don't have one on campus, but where there's a will, there's a way! My school has a bike lending program, where you can rent a bike. If there's a town near a popular trail, it might rent bikes, too. My family and I recently did a 25-mile bike ride in Jim Thorpe, PA. If you go to college in Pennsylvania, consider making the trip! At the bottom of the trail was a beautiful town, and shorter versions of the trail were available. It was definitely a challenge, and if you're just trying to get outside and move around, shorter trails are scattered all over the place, and still a ton of fun.
Biking with friends is another great way to make outdoor activities more fun. Food, music, great views, and a nice destination are all good motivators if you're feeling reluctant to get outside. Check out railstotrails.org to find biking trails for all skill levels near your college, and then encourage your friends to slap on a helmet and get peddling!
Of course, there are many less intense outdoor activities to do in the fall. Pumpkin patches, corn mazes, apple orchards, and parks will all bring you a little boost of energy as well. Sometimes, for those affected by SAD, all it takes is a continuous effort to break that cycle of inactivity in order to help relieve the harshness of the symptoms. It's important to make an effort now, while it's still a little warmer, so that when winter comes you aren't deep in the mindset of inactivity.
The most important thing you can do for a friend who suffers from SAD is support them and encourage them to give new activities a try, even when they aren't feeling like it. There are no negative side effects to getting outside and exploring nature with friends, as long as you do so safely. Even if you aren't looking specifically to alleviate symptoms associated with SAD or S-SAD, outdoor exercise is full of great benefits for your mind and body, and being active with friends is always a fun time.
Just because summer is over doesn't mean you have to sit inside, sipping cider, watching your tan fade and missing the beach. Autumn has a whole world of vibrant activities to offer if you just take a look. Why not try walking on a nearby trail, and grab a fresh cup of cider from a farm stand? Your mood will thank you for it!
(All information on Seasonal Affective Disorder was collected from Coping With Seasons: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach to Seasonal Affective Disorder by Rohan J. Kelly, c. 2008)