Updated: Feb 13
As the days get shorter, and the weather gets colder, some people start to feel sad, suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. For years, this has been me. My depression tends to worsen in the winter. When I think back over the years, some of the worst depressive episodes I have experienced have been in January.
Trudging through the snow in Colorado, my boots soaking through and making my feet wet and cold, I start to get angry with the weather. I curl up in my house, call in sick to work, and pile blankets on top of myself. I start to dream of white, sandy beaches, and resent a life that bore me into a landlocked state.
But why is that? I have lived with snowy winters my whole life. You would think I would have gotten used to it by now. But nope. Are some people just predisposed to hating the winter?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Over the years people have told me that I am being dramatic about how much I hate the winter, but according to Psychiatry.org, "SAD is more than just “winter blues.” The symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming and can interfere with daily functioning. However, it can be treated. About 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD and it typically lasts about 40 percent of the year. It is more common among women than men."
Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common in people who already have depression or bipolar. That means if you are like me, your depression might get worse in the winter too. According to Medline, "Seasonal affective disorder occurs in 0.5 to 3 percent of individuals in the general population; it affects 10 to 20 percent of people with major depressive disorder and about 25 percent of people with bipolar disorder."
According to the Mayo Clinic, "Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:
Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
Having low energy
Having problems with sleeping
Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
Feeling sluggish or agitated
Having difficulty concentrating
Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide"
These symptoms will typically start out mild, and will get worse as the season goes on. Most people have the (aptly named) SAD symptoms in the winter, but there are some people who are the opposite and feel this way in the spring and summer.
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
If your SAD has gotten to the point where you are thinking about suicide, it is best to call your therapist, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). That way, you can start feeling better as soon as possible, and not let your symptoms overcome you!
When your SAD is less severe, the treatments will look similar to treatment for depression, such as going to a therapist or taking different types of antidepressant medications. Also, since SAD is triggered by the changing seasons, some people will be prescribed Light Therapy.
Before starting light therapy on your own, it is best to consult with your healthcare provider to see if this treatment is right for you. According to the Mayo Clinic, "During light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing SAD symptoms."
If you aren't able to use a light therapy box, you can be sure to open your windows to let in some natural light, or go for walks outside on your lunch break, so that you get some time in the sun. Personally, I find that taking time to go outside on nice days usually does improve my mood.
You can also try a "dawn simulator" which is similar to an alarm clock, but instead of waking you up with sound, wakes you up with a light that progressively gets brighter.
SAD or Holiday Depression?
If you don't feel depressed all winter, you could have depression relating to specific holidays as well. The holiday season can be stressful for many other reasons. This can include overwhelm, toxic family, or pressure to spend too much on gifts. If this is the case, there are still ways to cope, besides hiding in bed until the spring.
Prioritize Self Care.
Of course, it is always important to prioritize self care, but even more so during stressful times. Make sure that you are taking some time every day for self care, it can be as little as five minutes! Just make sure that you are investing some time in yourself, so that you aren't burned out over the holidays.
Self care can take any form that you like. Some examples can include:
Spending time in nature
Practicing mindfulness, meditation or yoga
Hot shower or bath
Hot cup of tea or coffee
Reading a book
Basically, anything that you do just for you, that helps make you happy and restores your sanity can be considered self care.
Another thing that I consider to be self care is setting boundaries, and saying no to anything that is going to push your stress level over the top. It is OK to say no to organizing the Christmas pageant, making snacks for the class, going to a dinner party or event, or taking phone calls or emails from toxic people.
My mom used to call incessantly around the holiday season inviting me to dinners with toxic relatives that would insult me the whole time. I told her no. She called again. Eventually, I would be in tears after every call because of the guilt trips that she laid on me. Years of therapy later, I realize that my mom is a toxic person too, and I don't take those calls anymore. That has brought me a large amount of peace, and keeps me from dreading the holidays.
Create Traditions that You Enjoy.
If you are like me and grew up in a toxic household, or experienced trauma, you may not want to celebrate with your family anymore. The traditions you grew up with may be triggering and hurtful instead of anything else, and if that is the case, you may want to drop those traditions.
For about five years, I stopped celebrating Christmas at all, because it made me just miserable and unhappy. I would sit alone on my couch eating crackers and spray cheese instead of going with my daughter and my ex to the family celebrations. I worked. I avoided. I told everyone that I don't celebrate Christmas. For years.
Then finally, I moved in with my Partner, Gary. He loves Christmas, and that really helped me reclaim the holidays and make it new and special in a way that it never had been before. That first Christmas, he bought me my own special tree, and purple decorations (purple is my favorite color) so that I could put it all up myself. On Christmas itself, we sat together all day in our pajamas watching movies, he cooked a nice dinner, and we threw all the Christmas wrap on the floor and left it there until the next day.
When people invited us to do anything, we told them we were doing just the two of us.
After we had River, we have kept Christmas day just for us and the kids. We still sit around in our PJ's all day and eat wonderful food. We also pick out some epic movie trilogy to watch, and spend the day doing that. It is fun, and relaxing, and I actually enjoy Christmas now.
If you don't want to spend the holidays with your family, another option is to volunteer. Many churches or homeless shelters serve holiday dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they can always use more volunteers to help! Also, spending the day helping those in need can make you feel better about yourself and your life, than spending the day alone or with toxic family.
Remember, it is always OK to put yourself and your needs first. Create traditions for yourself that honor that, and that make the holidays really feel like a celebration.
Reign in Spending on Gifts.
If you are stressed about the sometimes thousands of dollars that get spent on holiday gifts, it is ok to say no to that too. Or to set a limit.
There are several different ways to do this. You can either set a limit with family members on the dollar amount of each gift, or you can do a gift exchange where each person only buys for one other person. Or, you can limit gifts to just the kids, because does dad really need another tie or bottle of Aqua Velva?
Also, you can get creative on what you do instead of gifts. You can all pitch in together and buy toys for a low-income family. You can adopt a family from the Salvation Army, or another local organization.
Or, you can make handmade gifts and cards. Kids especially love to do that.
Another option is to do a "white elephant" gift exchange, where people will wrap up some unwanted item from around the house to gift. It can be an entertaining game to play, people will take turns opening up a gift, and the next person can either take the previous gift or open up new one.
Whatever method you decide on remember, gift giving should be a source of happiness, not stress. If you are just too stressed about the gifts and the money (as I think happens to many of us when we let it get out of control!), set a boundary with your family. Tell them what you can afford and what you can't, and they should be understanding. If not, there may be bigger problems at play than just the gifts and spending.
Other Helpful Tips.
During the winter, when it is cold outside, we also have a tendency to turn to comfort foods. Quite frequently these are sugary snacks (think everything from Halloween candy to Christmas cookies, and all the goodies inbetween), and eating too much sugar can cause you to have short bursts of energy followed by a crash. Be sure to maintain good nutrition, as well as taking a multi-vitamin and extra vitamin C to boost your immune system.
Also, with a profusion of holiday parties throughout the winter, people have a tendency to drink more alcohol. Since alcohol is a depressant, this is likely to make your SAD worse instead of better. According to WebMD, "Heavy alcohol use also can make antidepressants less effective." When you combine these two factors, it makes sense to limit alcohol intake over the holidays. A glass of wine here or there shouldn't have a huge impact, but you don't want to make symptoms worse with heavy drinking.
According to Everyday Health, here are some other tips to help with SAD:
Prioritize social activities
Add aromatherapy to your treatment plan
Stick to a schedule
Take a vacation or 'Staycation'
Keep a journal
Get enough vitamin D
In general, anything you can do that improves your health and wellness in general will be likely to improve your SAD as well.
If you are feeling sad, depressed or stressed this winter, be sure to take care of yourself and to seek out some professional help if you are struggling. In addition, there is a lot you can do to cope with seasonal and holiday depression. Make sure to do things that make you happy and feed your soul, and limit those activities that leave you feeling depleted.
For more information on what I do for my mental health, check out these related blog posts:
For more on my story, check out the PTSD My Story Project!
If you have PTSD and Panic Attacks like I do, I have written an ebook to help in coping with panic attacks. It is now available in the shop.
Let me know what you think in the comments, and if there is more information you would like me to talk about in a future article. Be well my friends!