If you’ve ever suffered from seasonal affective disorder (a.k.a. seasonal depression, a.k.a. the winter blues), you know how difficult it can be—mentally, emotionally, and physically—to get through the cold months. The days are short and it seems like it’s always dark outside. Leaving your warm, cozy bed in the morning to go outside into the freezing cold might require just about all the motivation you can scrounge up for the day. Scraping car windows and driving in snowy slush is just annoying. The first snowfall might be fun and pretty, but snow days can become inconvenient pretty quickly. Most of your time is spent cooped up inside, leaving you lacking in sunshine and fresh air.
So, what are you to do? How can you get through these tough months, and maybe even enjoy them?
[This post is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment. If you’re having an especially hard time coping, please reach out for help with your doctor and/or therapist. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your primary care doctor for a referral and/or search Psychology Today for a therapist in your area. If you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you are not alone. Please utilize the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and/or visit the Emergency Room.]
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal depression was previously called seasonal affective disorder (with the appropriate acronym, SAD) in the DSM-IV (the big book of psychological diagnoses). Now, in the DSM-5, it’s categorized as a subcategory of depression, called “depression with a seasonal pattern.” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: depression that mostly just exists during the winter months. Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can look like:
- changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- low energy and motivation
- withdrawal from social interaction
- decreased libido
- increased agitation or irritability
- difficulty concentrating
- thoughts of suicide or self harm
- general feelings of sadness and depression
Do You Need a Diagnosis for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
You don’t need a formal diagnosis to recognize that winter is harder for you and that you could be suffering from the winter blues. Although it might require a little (or a lot) more effort to take care of yourself from November to March, there are things you can do to build resilience and make it more bearable (or maybe even enjoyable) for yourself.
How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Below are some helpful tools for dealing with seasonal affective disorder. Some of these tips might work for you and others may not. Try them out, do what works for you, and leave the rest.
Be Honest With Yourself
Winter can be difficult for your mental health, and it’s okay to admit that. You don’t have to try and pretend like it’s not happening… after all, you can’t mitigate a problem you’re not aware of or in denial about.
And Then Nip the Shame Spiral in the Bud
After you realize what’s happening and are honest with yourself, try your hardest not to best yourself up and go down a shame spiral. What’s a shame spiral? It might sound something like this inside your head: “Oh my god, I can’t believe I can’t even handle the freaking weather, people have much bigger problems than this, I’m such a wimp, I can’t deal with anything, I can’t even get up in the morning just because it’s cold and dark outside, I hate myself!” etc., etc.
Have you heard of the term ‘secondary emotion‘? It’s an emotion about another emotion. So it might be anger at yourself for being sad. As if the first emotion wasn’t enough, it can become convoluted with more emotions, causing the shame spiral.
After you take a moment to be honest with yourself about the emotion you’re feeling, try to simply let yourself feel it. Say hi to it. Try not to attach something else to it. This might take practice, but it will get easier with time. You’ll probably find that your emotions become lighter and more manageable over time.
Set Your Priorities
It may be time to get super intentional with your self-care priorities this season. This isn’t the time for being lax with your exercise, boundaries, and hobbies that bring you joy. Below is a worksheet that may help you identify the things you need to incorporate more of into your life during the winter season, as well as the things you might want to take out or put boundaries around, in order to make your life more enjoyable and improve your mental health.
Here’s how it works. There are five different areas on the chart:
- In the middle, you’re going to write all the things that actively and immediately make you happy. They can be physical objects, activities, people, etc. You’re going to be very intentional about incorporating as much and as many of these things into your life as often as you can.
- In the top-left area, write down the things you know are good for you, but which may be kind of hard for you to do and might not make you immediately happy. For example, going to the gym might be one of them. We may know it will make us feel better in the long run, but it can be difficult to make the time for it, especially in the winter. Once you’ve identified the things that belong in this section, work on implementing them into your daily and weekly routines so that they become easier to carry out.
- In the top right area, write down things you love and make you happy, but in moderation. For example, you may really love spending time with people and serving others, but also have a tendency to give too much without taking time to rest and reset by being alone. The things in this area should be implemented with boundaries and you’ll want to balance them out with things from your inner circle.
- The two bottom areas are for things that make you unhappy. The bottom left is where you write the things you can control, and the bottom right is for things you can’t. You want to work on actively either removing or changing the things on the left side. For the things on the right side, you want to work on acceptance and finding effective coping skills that work for you. And of course, work on balancing out the bottom two areas with things from your inner circle as much as possible.
Remember: no one has to see this exercise except you. Try not to write down what you think *should* make you happy or what you think you *should* or *shouldn’t* implement into your life or take out of your life. Be honest about what makes you happy and what doesn’t… or else this exercise won’t work!
Below is a downloadable and mobile-friendly PDF of the sheet which you can print out to fill in yourself, or recreate in your journal. Beside that is an example to get your gears turning.
Send in the Reinforcements
You might want to budget some extra time and/or money for additional support this season. To help you compbat seasonal affective disorder, you may want to get a therapist to help you learn coping skills and to have a professional to talk to. Or you may want to join a gym or pick up a new painting hobby. Don’t be afraid to get help where you need it, and splurge a little extra time, money, or energy if you can!
Kindly Lower Your Expectations for Yourself
Winter might be a time to just get less done, and that is totally okay! Take some of the pressure off of yourself and set small, daily goals. Celebrate each little thing you get done (even if it’s just brushing your teeth or getting to work on time). Break your larger goals into smaller, less overwhelming action steps, and consider giving yourself some additional cushion time to get it done.
Develop a Reward System That Works for You
With seasonal addective disorder, it can be quite difficult to be productive, even when it comes to small, daily tasks like showering or doing the dishes. Consider how are you wired, and what motivates you. Can you gamify your daily and weekly chores? And/or, could you make your tasks more entertaining by listening to a podcast or audiobook while you’re doing them? Don’t be afraid to get creative!
Support and Energize with Supplements
Getting and staying motivated and happy is a lot easier if our bodies are well supported. Here are some supplements to help you combat the low energy and fatigue that’s such a big part of seasonal affective disorder. (Just remember to consult your doctor before making changes to your regimen.)
- Iron: get it from meat, beans, or a supplement.
- B12: get it from salmon, feta or cottage cheese, eggs, nutritional yeast, or a supplement. Iron and B12 deficiencies are very common and can greatly affect energy levels.
- Melatonin: taking melatonin at night can help make sure you get a good night’s sleep.
- Adaptogens: in short, adaptogens are natural herbs that work with your body to help with a variety of different things. Rhodiola, ashwagandha, and holy basil are great for helping you manage stress, leaving you with more energy to get stuff done throughout your day.
- Peppermint essential oil: this has been proven to stimulate your mind and increase focus. Keep a bottle at your desk or dab a few drops on your wrists for a gentle pick-me-up.
- Try removing or decreasing caffeine. This can be a tough one for many, but after your bogy adjusts, it can make a big difference in stabilizing energy levels.
- Stay hydrated.
Try not to crawl into your hibernation cave. Instead, spend time with supportive friends and family who lift you up.
Get Into Nature
Even though being outside in the cold is uncomfortable for those who already have a hard time with winter, even just ten minutes of fresh and sunshine can go a long way. So unless it’s dangerously cold outside, bundle up and take a walk around the block. Or, take a kid (or adult) you love out for a snowball fight! Play can be a great way to combat seasonal affective disorder too!
Get Good Sleep
Did you know our bodies are actually made to sleep more during the winter months and less during the summer months? Considering giving yourself an extra hour or so of sleep each night. Just don’t overdo it because then it could have the opposite effect.
Get Vitamin D
Vitamin D is really important for a lot of reasons: energy levels, mood, immune function, fatigue, hormonal balance, bone strength, lung function, fertility, and prevention of a whole host of conditions from heart disease to cancer. Most of us know that one of the main ways we get vitamin D is from the sun. So if we’re rarely outside during the winter months, there’s a good chance we could be deficient. (Vitamin D deficiency is very common.)
Try and get more foods that are high in vitamin D into your diet: fatty fish (like salmon or tuna), crimini mushrooms, some yogurts, and eggs. If you can’t get enough through your diet, supplement with a high-quality vitamin or sustainably-sourced cod liver oil. For kids, look for vitamin D fortified milk and/or cereal at the grocery. Or you can get a HappyLight!
Practice Meditation or Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be helpful for many things, including combatting seasonal affective disorder. Try out an app like Calm, which can help teach you how to breathe deeply and be present in the moment.
Use Routines to Help
Get yourself into a morning and nightly routine that works for you so that on those days when you really just feel like you can’t get out of bed, you have some momentum to get you going. Having a system in place to help you go through the motions even when you don’t feel like it can help prevent you from spiraling.
The winter months, and especially the holiday season, can be a lonely and sad time for a lot of people. If you’ve been exiled or don’t feel like you fit in with your family, if there is trauma or strained relationships with your loved ones, or if you’ve lost a loved one, the holiday season can heighten that pain. Gratitude is not a magic pill, but it can really help.
Check out The Five Minute Journal, a notebook that helps you establish a practice of spending five minutes in the morning and at evening reflecting on what you’re grateful for. You can get the app (Apple / Android) or a physical journal.
As Always, Listen To And Honor Yourself
No matter what, always listen to your body, mind, and emotions, honoring the messages they might be giving you. Among many things, seasonal affective disorder can be an indicator from our bodymind that something is off, or that something needs to be changed, adjusted, and treated with exceptional care. You might not be able to determine exactly what message your bodymind is trying to give you (especially with the grey cloud of depression fogging things up), but simply paying attention and acknowledging is the crucial first step and that alone can make a positive impact.
So as you implement the tips above into your life, pay attention and take note of what works best for you and what doesn’t. Adjust, add, and edit as you find what works for your lifestyle, health, and happiness.