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I have always looked forward to the colder months. For me, shorter days and chilly temperatures mean cozy sweaters, snuggling under blankets, and fuzzy socks. It had never truly occurred to me that seasonal depression was a real thing until I met my husband. He—unlike myself—is genuinely impacted by the winter months, and struggles each year when the weather starts to turn.
And he is not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, affects about five percent of adults in the United States. It is more common among women than men, and has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. Though rare, SAD can also affect children, sometimes causing fussiness, clinginess, and emotional reactivity, or disinterest, sleepiness, and poor memory.
Common symptoms of SAD include fatigue, even with too much sleep, and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings. SAD symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include many symptoms similar to major depression, such as:
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite; usually eating more, craving carbohydrates
- Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Some experts have warned that individuals will be particularly hard-hit this year due to the culminating effects of seasonal depression and COVID-related mental, emotional, physical, and economic challenges.
While it is important to acknowledge that this winter may be tougher than usual, it doesn’t mean that things are hopeless. There are many preventative steps that we can take to combat seasonal depression—and you can start right now!
1. Make a Plan
If you know that you are affected by seasonal depression, now is the time to start planning. And for those who might not typically be impacted but may be struggling this year, some planning might also be in your best interest.
Make a list of warning signs and symptoms—indicators of when your mental health may be declining. Then, make a note of all of your coping strategies—the things that have helped you feel better in the past. This exercise will help you create a game plan for if/when things begin to feel too hard.
2. Think Positively
There are many known health benefits to thinking positively, though it is unclear why people who engage in positive thinking experience these health benefits. One theory is that having a positive outlook enables you to cope better with stressful situations, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body.
Thinking positively begins with positive self-talk: the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head. These thoughts can be either positive or negative. Each day, you can make the conscious decision to speak to yourself with kindness, or not. Practice showing yourself a little grace each day.
3. Make Health a Priority
Set and maintain a daily routine, eat healthy foods, and get regular exercise.
Recent studies have shown that people who eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean red meats, and other healthy foods, showed a significant improvement in depressive symptoms.
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Getting more sunlight may help too, so try to get outside to exercise when the sun is shining. Being active during the daytime, especially early in the day, may help you have more energy and feel less depressed.
4. Keep Things Light
Light therapy has been a mainstay for the treatment of SAD for decades. It aims to expose people with SAD to a bright light every day to make up for the diminished natural sunshine in the darker months.
If this isn’t an option, just getting outdoors can be the first step toward a healthier mindset, even in the PNW. When walking outside, try keeping an upward gaze instead of looking at the ground, and practice deep breathing. If you’re able, try to get your heart rate up several times a week.
5. Stay Social
Despite the logistical challenges this year, it’s important to maintain connections with family and friends. While you may have to get a bit creative, there are many ways to connect with people this winter, even if it isn’t necessarily face-to-face.
It can be tempting to close yourself off, especially when struggling with depression. In planning for the winter, ask a friend or family member to be your winter-blues buddy, and keep each other accountable.
6. Keep Growing in Yourself
I know, I know … many of us have tried new things since the beginning of COVID-19. But now isn’t the time to get complacent! Try a new hobby, get involved, and throw yourself into something new. Find the thing that will carry you through the darker days, and do it wholeheartedly. And if possible, find something that you can do with a family member or friend.
7. Find Help
If you’ve tried multiple ways to make yourself feel better and aren’t noticing any improvements in your mood—or are noticing that it’s getting worse—it might be time to seek professional help. Getting help is not a sign of weakness; it is proof that you take your mental health seriously.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
The Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.