Every year I wait for it. Do you?
I anticipate what feels like a switch inside of me that Mother Nature controls from afar. Some years its merely a slight dimming. Other years I feel the lights go off so abruptly and harshly that it stuns me. Even though I was waiting for it.
The feeling is a heaviness that bears down on my chest. Some call it the “winter blues”. The medical definition is seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s a very real kind of depression. And I get some form of it every year. Do you?
You may have SAD if you consistently feel the blues in the fall and winter but notice that you perk up once spring arrives.
Anyone can get SAD, but it seems to be particularly common among:
- People who live in places where daylight hours become shorter certain times of the year.
- People with a history of depression. 1
You may experience a mild form of the blues or a more serious major depression. While nobody knows exactly what causes SAD, many researchers believe it may be caused by a lack of sunlight.
Not having enough sunlight could disrupt our normal patterns of sleeping and waking. That influences our circadian rhythms.
It’s also possible that lowered light levels may cause our serotonin levels to dip. Serotonin is a chemical in our brain that impacts our mood.
That’s what it is. But this is what it feels like.
- You may be grumpier than usual and more easily irritated by small things.
- You might gain weight – especially if you find yourself craving comfort foods and eating things you normally don’t.
- You may feel lethargic. You may have less energy and want to sleep more. Or you may just want to sleep because being awake makes you sad.
If you nodded your head to those things, here’s what I want to tell you. On a personal level. There are ways you can get relief.
I’m not including this just because I’m one of those fitnessy fitness people. Working out has been demonstrated to alleviate symptoms of depression. 2 I always underestimate this until I have a week like the one I’m going through right now. I caught a bad cold and couldn’t make it to the gym for a few days.
I could feel my mood plummet. The challenge is when you feel really depressed, it’s hard to force yourself to exercise. Because you feel exhausted and paralyzed. But do something.
Move. If you can make it to the kitchen, stretch your body. If you can make it out the door, walk around the block. If you can make it around the block, do it again. And again. And eventually you’ll get into a regular routine.
My gym time is sacred for a lot of reasons. But the reason I very rarely talk about is this one. It lets me keep going during the fall and winter.
2. Seek the light.
Get some fresh air and sunlight whenever you can. Exposure to light is a critical tool for helping alleviate symptoms of SAD.
Just getting outside helps me a bunch if the sun is shining. Light therapy is perhaps the most effective tool for treating SAD. You use something called a light box. A light box has powerful lamps and just sits on a table in front of you while you go about your business for a certain amount of time each day. Numerous studies show the benefits of light therapy. 3
Other forms of manipulating light also exist. Low levels of Vitamin D are linked to depression, though research seems to be conflicted about just exactly how. Supplementing with Vitamin D may or may not help with symptoms. So talk to a doctor or therapist to learn about next steps.
3. Tell someone.
The kick in the pants of depression, SAD and otherwise, is that not only do we feel awful for having it; we do a few other things that make ourselves feel even worse.
We may isolate ourselves because we don’t want anyone to know that we’re struggling. We sometimes feel like that makes us weak. Or we may discount our struggling and believe that because we’re going to work each day that it’s not actually a problem. Just suck it up, right?
Don’t just suck it up. Reach out – even if it’s just to one person whom you trust. One of my clients is an old friend. She goes through SAD just like I do. And she now knows that it’ll be coming for her.
The most amazing thing she did was to tell her close friends something along the lines of this:
“Hey. I know winter is going to make me feel like crap. I’m going to try to hide and stop eating well and exercising. And so I need you to keep checking on me. Because once it hits, I won’t be able to do it.”
Nobody will think you’re weak or dumb. They’ll just love you and help you through.
4. Give yourself permission to not be a shiny happy cartoon person. Nobody is.
I think that I’m generally a positive, proactive person. Having a constantly negative mindset about the world and everyone in it is probably a sign we need to do some internal work. But when you have the blues, simply telling yourself to be positive may make you feel worse.
We see everyone post on social media. They may look like they have a radiant, perfect life. They may even be posting memes about how you should feel happy. Every time you see one you might feel worse about yourself because you enter what Mark Manson calls “the negative feedback loop.”
You don’t feel happy because you feel depressed. Then you feel bad about yourself because you don’t feel happy. Then you feel even worse.
Sometimes I do that. You might too. The truth is that social media is curated. It’s a collection of everyone’s best times with all the normal, day to day bullshit of dirty dishes and kids who threw tantrums and our heartbreaks left out. Nobody sees that. But it’s always in the background.
And what is helping me on days like these is to just embrace the bad day instead of feeling guilty for not being happy. “Yeah. Today blows. That sucks. But most likely tomorrow won’t.” I just roll with it. And it surprises me how much that helps.
5. When your squad drags you out, you go.
It took me many years to get this into my skull. When you feel depressed you probably don’t want to be around people. Yet spending time with those who care about you – the friends who make you laugh and connect. Those are the people who will make that brick on your chest a little less heavy.
Let them in. Get out of your house. Do things that help you take care of yourself.
6. Consider medication.
There is absolutely no shame in needing anti-depressant medication. There were times in my life when they got me out of the hole and able to actually work on the first five items on this list. See your doctor and talk about how they might help.
You don’t need to suffer in silence. Talk to someone. Anyone. You’re normal. And worthy of feeling better. And if you made it all the way through this article and you think someone else might find it helpful – please share. Thank you!
- Melrose, Sherri. “Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches.” Depression Research and Treatment 2015 (2015): 1-6. Web. ↩
- Cooney, Gary, Kerry Dwan, and Gillian Mead. “Exercise for Depression.” Jama311.23 (2014): 2432. Web. ↩
- Magnusson, Andres, and Helgi Kritbjarnarson. “Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder with High-intensity Light.” Journal of Affective Disorders 21.2 (1991): 141-47. Web. ↩