Recently, around the holidays I’ve noticed that my usual excitement for all things turkey and tinsel has started to wane. By the time the middle of February rolls around, most of my days feel so weighty that if there’s one more gray day, I might lose it a little. I find my energy zapped by 10am, struggling to get myself out of bed, only wanting to eat bready and sugary foods (and not even thinking about veggies), and being just generally apathetic about everything. But, as the days get longer and the sun gets brighter, my mood starts to lift again. Once spring comes in full swing, I feel back to my usual self.
So what the heck happens in the winter?
If this sounds like you — like the dreary weather gives you more than just the “winter blues” — you might be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that’s related to the seasons. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people with SAD feel affected during the winter months, where there’s far less sunlight, which can have real effects on your sleep, circadian rhythm, and even serotonin levels. The farther from the equator you are, the more likely you might be to develop SAD, and also if you have a history of depression in your family.
When I first heard about SAD, I had two thoughts: first, I felt relieved that I could name my severe moodiness and exhaustion as a legitimate problem (which can, therefore, have a legitimate solution), but then I felt a little embarrassed. The weather? That’s what was giving me these depressive feelings? There are people with far more frustrating and difficult circumstances that are doing “better” than me.
Let’s stop that comparison game right now. Your mental health is relative to you and you alone; it doesn’t matter if your experiences are “worse” or “easier” than someone else’s, however you’re reacting to those situations is completely valid. It’s much easier to start working towards healing and solutions when you stop cutting down your experience because it doesn’t seem “right” — you’re hurting/depressed/anxious for whatever reason, and that’s okay.
For some of us, that means that the lack of sunlight and vitamin D causes our emotional and mental states to get all out of whack. If that’s you, here are a few suggestions of ways to take care of yourself during these tough months.
Talk to a counselor
I’m almost always on team psychotherapy, and dealing with SAD is no different. There’s a lot of good that can come from talking to a professional about what you’re going through, especially if your downer moods are leading you to thoughts or feelings that are overwhelming. He or she can help you pinpoint what incorrect or unhelpful things you might be telling yourself, and also dig out the root of those overwhelming feelings once and for all. If you find that your seasonal depression is turning into full-time depression, this person can also connect you with someone who could provide you with medication, if that’s what they determine you need.
Get some sun
There are lots of ways to get the vitamin D you need, and the easiest is just stepping outside. I live in Chicago, and it gets cold cold cold here, but taking just a ten minute walk outside is beneficial for getting some fresh air and soaking up the rays that cut through the clouds.
Bringing the sunshine in with a solar lamp that emits light that mimics the sun and its benefits is another great way to get what you’re missing out on. I have a light that’s on a timer, so it slowly gets brighter in the morning to make it seem like I’m waking up with the sun — a huge help if you wake up to a pitch-dark room.
If your schedule and bank account can afford it, getting away to a warm and sunny locale for a quick vacay is my personal favorite way to replenish.
Taking a vacation, if you’re able, to a warm spot is also great in this regard. It can be difficult to think clearly or focus when there’s underlying physical tension — check in with your body to see if you’re cold all the time (like I am). Wrap up in blankets, keep a warm mug in your hands, and crank that thermostat up to make sure that you’re as comfortable as you can be to pay attention to how you’re feeling.
Keep physically fit
I write this begrudgingly, but treating your body to the best of your ability is only going to help you. Getting your body moving (maybe it’s just that walk in the sun) and staying away from carbohydrates for the most part (even though that might be all you’re craving) will boost your energy levels even just a smidge. But please — give in to yourself every so often. Sometimes things that aren’t good for the body are good for the soul. Treat yourself with chocolate or crunches, depending on what your body is asking for.
Kindly manage your thoughts (it’s hard, I know)
This is probably the biggest thing you can do during seasonal depression. I find it really easy to try and toughen up, to condemn myself for feeling so tired and upset, as if I can snap myself out of it. I’ve had far more success talking sweetly to myself, actively accepting that I’m in a fragile state and that doesn’t make me an inherently fragile person. As overwhelming as anxiety and depressive feelings can seem, they will pass. Promise. Practicing some guided meditation or taking a few minutes to talk it out with a friend can be little ways to process your feelings.
For me, when it feels like there will be gray clouds outside and inside forever, I find it helpful to tell myself about the things that I love, even if I don’t feel like I love them right there in that moment. Repeating the truth to yourself can be helpful to combat catastrophic thoughts (“I’ll always be this sad,” “Life/I’m not worthwhile,” “I am alone”) that can overwhelm us. The fact that you are loved and that you are capable of feeling joy are true things about you — how you feel does not define who you are.
These suggestions are all just strategies to help manage the numbness or sadness or anxiety that comes with heavy winters and Seasonal Affective Disorder. For me, it’s about holding on to the hope that spring will come and this weight is just a season, albeit an uncomfortable one. The less I struggle and fight against my feelings and instead accept them and work to unravel them, the better I feel. Chatting with a professional about your SAD will lead to a pathway to better mental health that is tailored to you and which strategies will help you the most.