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.
Getting Outside Everyday
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.
Going to Bed Early
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!)
Putting Away My Phone
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.
Having a Fire Everyday
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.
Not Having an Office Job
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).
Light Therapy (sort of)
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).
Accepting That It’s Partially Normal
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