By Cassie Johnston
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I first heard the term Seasonal Affective Disorder about 10 years ago, and it felt like someone had put a name to a problem I didn’t even realize was a thing. If you’ve never heard of it, Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD for short) is when your mental and emotional state are profoundly impacted by the shorter days that happen in winter (worth noting: there is a small percentage of folks who actually suffer from SAD from longer/sunnier days, too).
For my entire adult life, I spent November through February with an emotional limp. I just couldn’t muster the energy or enjoyment to do any of the things that brought me joy in the middle of summer. I’m not talking about the normal wintertime inclination to stay inside, stay cozy, and hibernate, I’m talking snapping at my husband, crying for no apparent reason, and not wanting to get out from under the covers for days at a time. I literally felt like an entirely different person when the days got shorter.
And then, around the end of February every year, I’d realize I felt like myself again. My happy, outgoing, driven self came back as the days got longer. Only being “Happy Cass” for two-thirds of the year didn’t quite sit right with me, so I’ve been actively working to turn the dial down on my Seasonal Affective Disorder —and it’s been going so well for me. I thought I’d share with you a little bit about what I do to make SAD not quite so sad.
Since my job is at a desk (or behind a camera), I spend the vast majority of my hours indoors. What did that get me? A crazy low vitamin D level, that’s what. You know what a vitamin D deficiency can do to you? All kinds of nasty stuff, but most fitting to SAD, it can mess with your serotonin levels. The answer? Get my arse outside. Every day. Even if it’s raining. Even if it’s cold. Every. Damn. Day. I try to get outside as soon as the sun is up to really get my eyes adjusted to the idea that it’s daytime. I also try to make sure my arms and chest are exposed (if it isn’t too terribly cold) for a few minutes to really soak in the vitamin D. (I also am currently taking a Vitamin D supplement to get my low levels up—but that’s more of a treatment dose than a maintenance dose.)
Even though my depression is “only” seasonal/situational, I still find a lot of value in going to therapy. My therapist and I were just talking about this last week – for folks without a history of major mental illness, therapy can still be an incredibly powerful maintenance tool. Seeing my therapist a few times a month is like making sure I get my oil changed in my car regularly—it’s managing the undercurrent of emotion that we, as humans, are always processing. An established relationship with a therapist also means I have someone looking out for the big picture of my mental health—so if something more serious does pop up, I’m better equipped with the tools and support I need to handle it.
For me personally, I know part of why my SAD creeps in is because I fight against the natural rhythms of winter days. I expect to feel just as energized at 8pm in January as I do at 8pm in June—but that’s not how we’re wired. We’re wired for our energy levels to ebb and flow with the length of the days (just like chickens—they don’t lay eggs when the days get short, they rest), and for years, I fought against that. I don’t anymore. I go to bed whenever I am tired. In the winter, that can be as early as 7:30pm (really). Part of not being crushed by SAD for me has been accepting that some of the symptoms of SAD are actually just the normal way my body reacts to shorter days, and rolling with it. And the big one is going to bed as soon as my body tells me it’s tired (even if there is a really important basketball game that I have to miss—this happened last week, but thankfully there was a 7am replay the next day!)
This one is just a general mental health improvement in my life—not being tethered to my phone. And I don’t just mean that metaphorically, I mean literally, physically not being attached to my phone for the vast majority of the day. I’ve found that when I have my phone on or near me, the habit/muscle memory to just grab it and distract myself on social media is too strong, and the more I distract myself, the less I accomplish and the worse I feel. I have to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I felt happier/better/more content after checking social media—the negatives just outweigh the benefits for me. Part of that is the state of the world. Part of that is my own baggage. Both add up to always being connected being bad news for my emotional state. So I don’t keep my phone near me anymore. I keep the ringer on, and I keep it out of arm’s length, but within earshot.
This goes to a bigger discussion about koselig/hygge, but for me, having a fire everyday has made all the emotional difference when it comes to winter time. Having a fire (and doing other quintessentially wintery things) has made the winter something to celebrate instead of something to endure. It seems like a silly difference, but back when we first moved into our house, it seemed like such a hassle to have a fire. And it wasn’t worth the hassle. But as soon as I tied my own wintertime contentment to building a fire everyday, the return on investment of the 10 minutes it took to start a fire became totally worth it. I am worth it.
I’m hesitant to mention this, because I know it’s completely unrealistic for most folks to just up-and-leave their office job, but I feel like I’d be pulling the wool over your eyes if I didn’t tell you that quitting the office job made a huge impact in how Seasonal Affective Disorder affected me. Part of it was that I was in a toxic, negative, unfulfilling workplace (and that ish infects everything in your life), but part of the improvement was also physically not being behind a desk, under fluorescent lights and away from windows, from sunrise to sunset everyday during the winter. We humans are an advanced species, but we’re still animals, and lordy, we are not meant to live in that kind of captivity. In hindsight, I now see that I could have GREATLY improved my own situation—I could have asked for a desk closer to a window. I could have taken hourly walk breaks. I could have gone outside for picnic lunches. I could have suggested walking meetings with colleagues. They all would have improved the situation almost as much as just quitting the game.
I had no idea what meditation really was before I started a regular meditation practice. I thought it was this spiritual, zen, perfect act (and for some people, it is), but meditation is so much more relaxed, casual, and welcoming than that picture I had in my mind. Meditation has taught me to be an impartial observer to the things that are going on in my own mind. Does it mean I don’t have depressive/anxious thought anymore? Heck no. That’s not the goal of meditation. It means that I can step outside those thoughts, recognize them, categorize them, and then determine if they are worth acting on—in a rational and calm way.
Shoutout to my Finnish-Canadian husband, because without his influence, I’m not sure I ever would have stepped into a sauna—but it’s been one of the very best tools I use to not only beat SAD but also destroy the jerk bacteria of Lyme disease. I believe body temperature is a huge trigger for a SAD flare-up for me. When I get chilled to the core (you know the feeling) and I can’t get warm, SAD seems to thrive. Warming my body both by the fire and the sauna really helps me stay in a better place. They actually have a dry sauna at my YMCA branch (which pretty much no one but me uses!), but I’d eventually love to put one in our own house (and the Finlander would love it).
You’re probably surprised to see this so far down on the list, because normally light therapy using a daylight lamp (this is the one I’ve had for about a decade now) is the #1 treatment suggestion for folks suffering from SAD. And I will say, it does take the edge off for me. But. BUT. I tried to use just the lamp for years without any sort of other lifestyle changes, and I have to be honest, it barely made a blip. I think light therapy should be part of an entire emotional and physical self-care protocol. For me, at least, just flipping on the light therapy lamp for 30 minutes a day didn’t do the trick. I do use the lamp for 30-60 minutes every morning from November–Feburary (before sunrise).
I’m hesitant to write this, because I never want to seem like I’m discounting the very real problem of mental illness (and the very important need to be believed and properly treated), but for me, part of giving SAD less power over me was accepting that certain aspects of it (in my case) are just normal for the wintertime. Like I said above, the instinct to hibernate in the winter is normal, natural, and even instinctual. Our bodies crave the rest of a quiet season. And for some of us, our bodies force us into that rest with depression and anxiety if we don’t fulfill that need naturally. I’ve noticed if I go ahead and give my body what it’s asking for—rest and reflection—early on in the Fall and Winter, it doesn’t normally resort to throwing me into a depressive state anymore. I’ve started to respect the fact that (at least for my body and my mind) wintertime requires quiet, and my body is rewarding me for this respect.
That all being said, I’m talking very specifically about a state of situational/seasonal depression—if you are fighting a more pervasive, chronic version of depression, I don’t think you are overreacting. I do think mental and emotional health is within your reach. And I do think you have the ability (with some help) to claim it. I believe you.
So, there you have it, that’s how I’m dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and now I want to hear from you! I’m curious if you guys struggle at all with SAD, and what techniques you use to help nip it in the bud? <3
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I like your take on therapy. I have an awesome therapist and have a really hard time thinking about not “needing” her anymore someday. However, outside of my own mental health issues, just being a woman living in the world today is definitely *enough* of a reason to see a therapist.
I think that I might deal with this. I struggled last winter and I’m starting to feel it again. Thank you for this post! I’m going to try some of this and see if it helps me.
I was feeling negative about the Holidays coming on (in particular the task of thinking about what to get those on my list) and I asked myself what I liked best about this time of year. My answer was lights. The way everyone, en masse, shines a light on the winter gloom together. So, gratitude for that simple, ancient human act of hanging a string of lights or lighting extra candles made me feel lucky to be able to experience both winter and the holidays.
I want to thank you for all of the self care posts lately! I have always struggled with depression to some degree but since becoming a mommy this year my anxiety has been through the roof. You have given me a lot of ideas on how to better care for myself and without all of you positive talk about therapy I am not sure I would have reached out and made my first appointment for next week. Thank you for all of your openness, it helps others more than you know!
Being a mom sure adds up anxiety and a million things you didnt even know you could feel . I do too suffer from depression and winter it’s the worst time for me to cope with . But never forget that you have to be well to take care of your lil’one(s) . xx
I believe my husband suffers horribly from SAD…he won’t discuss or admit there is an issue . Sometimes, not always, I notice an improvement in his mood if I have his favorite Pandora station playing quietly in the background. I have just started burning a bay leaf when the massive amounts of his negative energies are creeping thru the house. Light, burn, place in a fire safe receptacle, close the door if possible and walk away for 10 minutes. (inhaling the smoke can affect some people with breathing issues) Three leaves, three days…..and we are on day 8 of emotional sunshine! Thanks for sharing….I’ll try to implement some of your ideas to make both of our lives happier in the winter!!!! You rock Cassie!
My experience has been so different, but also pretty successful.
So in my case, I took the light therapy and really ran with it. I realized that part of my problem was insomnia and sleep deprivation, so I decided to really harness the light therapy and everything else I possibly could, to entrain my circadian rhythms during the winter. So I sit in front of two (!) sun lamps at my computer every morning for the entire morning, from about 8:30 when I get to work, until noon when they promptly get shut off. Not only that, but I bought an alarm clock that simulates a sunrise over the course of a half hour every morning, leading up to my wake up time when it plays bird songs to wake me up. I like to think this teaches my body when morning is, but I also find that I just wake up happier when there is already light in my face.
I don’t stay away from my phone or screen time at all, but I do have f.lux installed on my laptop at home and desktop at work, and I have Twilight installed and running on my phone, so I’m not exposed to blue light after sunset. I also dim the lights in my house.
I drink coffee every morning but never have caffeine after 10 am, and I stop eating and snacking by 8 pm, two hours before bed time. And, both f.lux and my husband tell me to go to bed on time every night.
Weirdly I also find that having a desk job actually helps me, because it gives me a set routine. I eat my meals at the same time each day and I remember to drink water and all that, which helps me feel better and also helps my body know what time of day it is. And although they do say that you should spend as much time as possible outdoors, that one has not worked for me: if I spend time outdoors in the winter, it just reminds me that it’s cold out and gets dark early and that just makes me sad.
I also work out for 30-40 minutes every morning as soon as I wake up, before my brain wakes up enough to object to it. It helps so much. And I try to stretch before bed every night.
I love your fire idea. I don’t have a fireplace or gas stove at home so it wouldn’t really work for me, but I know how important it is to stay warm so I have a rechargeable heated vest that I wear under my jacket in the winter, and I definitely agree that being around things that bring you joy is super important in the winter. For me that often means getting really into some form of art that involves an explosion of colors. Some years that means polymer clay work with canes, some years its marker drawings of song birds, and this year it’s a lot of cooking with brightly colored fruits and veggies (thanks, by the way, for all the recipes.)
Thanks for your honesty and insights. It was brave of you, and I feel very helped by this…
I too have suffered with this for years and recognize that I need a lot of light at this time of year but have become a couch potato and haven’t been getting outside. The warmth and attitude that winter is something to celebrate instead of dread is a wonderful idea.
Love this post! The part about being worth the hassle of lighting a fire reminds me of something that happened this weekend – we went to see Dumbledore Santa(!) at the Diagon Alley Project, and the line wrapped around the block. We had the kids with us, so my immediate reaction was just “sigh, let’s just go home”. But then I though, you know what, I really want to do this and I deserve to do stuff too. So I stood in line for 1.5 hours while my husband took the kids to a park, and we all got to see Dumbledore and had an awesome day. And that little anecdote was weird and way longer than I intended, sorry! Hah.
Also: I totally agree with accepting the natural feeling of blah in winter. Ray Cronise talks about that a lot, that we were probably meant to spend our winters resting and fasting (because we wouldn’t have much food), which would give our bodies time to recover from all sorts of stuff. But my preferred way to get through winter is to run through the forest…my life became so much better when I realized that running in the rain isn’t bad at all. We get so little sun here in the PNW in winter, so before I started embracing the rain, I spent most of winter annoyed by the lack of sunshine.
I’ve been suffering from this too – in my case the whole daylight savings season (mid-October to mid -March) was just miserable. I was desperately missing the sun, I only got a bit of respite when visiting places brightly lit, like shopping malls.
Your advice for dealing with SAD is really good, but I decided to fix it in a rather radical way – by moving to Australia ;) Worked like a charm ;)
Even though there’s daylight savings time here as well, and considerably shorter days from May to August, it doesn’t bother me anymore, because the days are bright and sunny, as opposed to gloomy and dark. Plenty of sunlight makes all the difference! I guess we are just house plants with complicated feelings after all ;)
All the best to you!
Thank you for sharing! I too suffer. Have suffered for years. I recently moved from NJ to Florida and noticed an immediate difference. Even when it’s raining down here, I am not so inclined to lay in bed or on the couch all day and night. Also exercise has played a big role in helping maintain my sanity. All the endorphins released truly help. I also found the light alone was not helpful. I find that I just have to push myself, sometimes even when I don’t want to. And some days/moments I also allow myself to succumb to the SAD…those are the times I just can’t fight. Then I come back stronger when that bout is over.
My coping strategies are pretty much the same and a good reminder for me as I’ve just started the plummet into S.A.D. A bit delayed this year because I have been getting up with the day but slightly worse for other reasons. I don’t use a blue light lamp because after some consultation with my therapist and some research (light therapy is effective short term but behaviour change is more effective long term!) we decided that I would go with a wake up lamp instead. As you said everyone has a different strategy. The other two things that help me are to remember that spring will come and I’ll feel better soon. The best tip I have comes from therapy and works for me best in managing my S.A.D and situational depression is to parent myself as I would a small child. I know that a proper bedtime routine helps children so it’ll also help me. I know that too much sugar impacts children’s behaviour, I try and limit mine and so on. It’s really helpful to give me perspective on what I need as opposed to what my not fully functioning brain wants!
I just want to pop in and say how glad I am you are feeling better. I have been LOVING your recent/frequent posts. Timely, fresh and really meaningful. Thank you!
Thank you so much for sharing! Your article totally resonates with me. I just had an outburst last night and I absolutely contribute it to SAD. I have often suffered from it year to year but haven’t really done anything about it. Your post really makes me want to take care of myself better and you get really helpful hints on how to do it. Thanks so much again :-)
I really like how you talk about therapy. Sometimes I do discuss deep things, but often I do just check in and it’s so useful!
I work in an office job and two additional things that help me: exercise and music. I do a short routine (push ups, plank, stretches) that takes less than ten minutes but gets my heart rate up and it helps regulate my feelings. I don’t got to the gym or even change – I do it at work (I can usually find an empty conference room).
I also wear wireless headphones a ton at work (thankfully it’s allowed). I just listen to mellow background music most of the time and it just helps me feel pleasant and focused. But if I’m really feeling down, I’ll whip out a happy playlist of over the top cheesy pop music and force myself to dance around and just give into the music. It never fails to make me feel at least a little better.
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