Dealing with Seasonal Depression

  • Copy by: Sarah Seung-McFarland
  • Feature Image By: David Creixell Mediante

The holiday season is officially in full swing. And it’s my favorite time of the year. With the colorful lights, glitter garlands, and festive window displays, I can’t get enough of all the pretty. But for some, the holidays fall smack dab in the middle of a difficult fall/winter season. One filled with uncharacteristic bouts of sadness and irritability that can’t be linked to any specific event, isn’t experienced during other times of the year, and makes you just want to get away. If this is you, perhaps you struggle with a seasonal depression. It can be hard to cope once you approach the fall season and anticipate the gloominess to come. And as much as you try to feel better, it negatively colors the way you see your world. You may be particularly sensitive during this time, unable to handle even minor stressors, and feel poorly about yourself and abilities.

If this has been a reoccurring pattern for the past two years or so, you’ve probably realized that seasonal depression is much more than a few bad days. By now you may have even seen a psychiatrist or a therapist for help (which I’m completely on board with). But truth be told, many feel embarrassed by their depression and are reluctant to share their condition with others. Oftentimes our struggles with medical illnesses are seen as signs of fortitude and strength, but emotional illnesses not so much.  This can explain why many people are more inclined to try to handle seasonal depression on their own. But if you understand depression as a basic human condition, you’ll likely feel less ashamed and better equipped to handle it. Here are some tips that can help.

It’s All Good

The other day while strolling the aisles of an indoor flea market with my family, I decided to have an empanada. It reminded me of the Jamaican beef patty I grew up on, and looked tasty enough. But several hours later, I had much regrets. It started with a little pain in my stomach that escalated to stomach pains so intense, it strangely reminded me of my labor pains (not kidding). After a couple minutes of squeezing my car armrest and a few GET-ME-HOME-NOWS!, my empanada came out the way it went in, and was all over my car seat (so eww). I hate vomiting as much as anyone, but I had to go through it in order to feel better.  It was my body’s way of correcting itself. And depression is kind of like that. Of course, people experience depression differently. Most people have mild forms of it, and if managed well, depression can be a necessary corrective response to stress. No, it doesn’t feel good and all your emotions may be out of whack, but it’s all good if it allows your mind to reorganize and reintegrate itself to adjust to stressors and function more effectively. Others have more extreme forms of depression, and when you’re in the thick of it, it doesn’t feel better just because stressors go away. In fact, it can feel more like drowning than healing, and if you are unable to come out of it, it can be a really lonely and scary place to be. At this level, clarity is hard to come by without help from a professional. But generally speaking, it’s helpful to pay attention to what your depressive symptoms are telling you. You’re feeling fatigued and irritable? Maybe you need to take a break. Are you preoccupied with a problem? Perhaps that’s your mind’s way of pulling together all your resources to overcome it. Are you overeating?  Figure out what’s triggering your desire for comfort and solace, and see where you can get it elsewhere.  Understanding depression as your body’s attempt to resolve a problem feels more hopeful and manageable, and helps to reduce the risk of chronic long-standing depression.

Don’t Stay Away from the Light

They say darkness pushes us closest to the light. And considering that a flashlight is the first thing we look for when there’s a blackout, it seems pretty accurate. The same can be said of depression. It’s a dark experience that can push us towards the light as we strive for insight and understanding. So it isn’t surprising that exposure to sunlight is considered one of the most effective treatments for winter seasonal depression. Many people, including myself, feel more alive and energetic when it’s sunny out. And if you experience seasonal depression, the sun helps to reset the biological clock responsible for regulating mood among other things, and gets you back to normal functioning. But while others can offer you treatments and tools to work through depressive symptoms, each person struggling with it must understand, trust, and invest in their own process of healing.

Any type of depression is such a personal experience and only you can do the work to improve

Oftentimes a textbook definition of depression only vaguely resembles your experience of it. I can run down a list of seasonal depressive symptoms that might describe your experience such as changes in appetite, increased sleep, fatigue and the list goes on, but your experience of it will be much more than symptoms. It will be part of you, and you may not even recognize your symptoms as “symptoms,” but rather valid thoughts and feelings that are an extension of your emotional life. Any type of depression is such a personal experience and only you can do the work to improve.  But if you minimize your depressive symptoms as just a reaction to a bad situation, or suppress it without giving it a proper outlet, you’ll be stuck in the dark and it may make the depression much more devastating in the long run than it has to be. So as light therapy is known to be effective with seasonal depression, an illuminated understanding of your depression supports your treatment and increases the chances that you will do the work to cope so much better than you did before.

Stock up for the Winter

Seasonal depression is a unique disorder due to its seasonal pattern. Unlike other depressive disorders that may be triggered by unexpected events, you pretty much know when the seasonal depression is coming, and can plan accordingly. So how do you plan for a seasonal depression? The same way you plan for other expected stressors—stock up on resources. It’s all about knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, and once you have it, you can use it to work for you. If you understand depression as a reaction to stress including biological, psychological, and environmental ones, you will do well to utilize resources that address all these areas. For instance, with seasonal depression, you ( as per the advice of your doctor) can address biological stressors by spending more time in well-lit areas or taking a trip to a sunny, warm location during the winter months. With psychological stressors, you may be attuned to your decreased ability to manage stress and consciously choose not to make any major decisions during the winter season. And with environmental stressors, you may surround yourself with a select group of friends, family, and treating professionals to offset anticipated conflict or demands. Even if you struggle with seasonal depression, the excitement during the holidays can be a quick pick-me-up, and it’s a great time to identify and gather your resources. You are in a better position to be creative and problem-solve when you are feeling upbeat, rather than if you wait until you’re in the throes of depression to combat struggles. Whatever you decide, strive to be honest with yourself about your symptoms and its impact on your loved ones, and work towards using all your internal and external resources to tackle your seasonal blues.