Self Care for Seasonal Depression/Seasonal Affective Disorder
Updated: May 8, 2020
Well we turned the clocks back an hour this week, and, if you're like me, your energy levels are gradually dwindling alongside the decreasing daylight hours.
A note about seasonal depression
Seasonal changes in mood and energy are natural and don't necessarily need to be pathologized. That said, as with just about anything there is a spectrum of experience here. Some people experience slight seasonal changes that are mildly annoying, while others experience debilitating symptoms that significantly interfere with their lives. From a mental health perspective, seasonal depression (formerly called seasonal affective disorder or "SAD" but has been reclassified as a subtype of depression) is a well documented mood disorder. People who meet criteria for seasonal depression/SAD are those whose symptoms interfere considerably with day to day functioning and wellbeing.
Whether you experience mild winter blues or severe seasonal depression, the tips below can help you take care of yourself this winter!
1. Notice the signs your mind and body give you
Changes in sleep (i.e. sleeping a lot more)
Feeling less social than usual
Changes in appetite
Feeling down or depressed
Less interest in activities you would usually enjoy
Decreased sex drive
Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness
Difficulty focusing or concentrating
Feeling tired, fatigued, or lethargic
Joints feel stiff or achy
Arms and legs feel heavy
To-do lists feel overwhelming
Feeling numb, disconnected, or dissociated
Increased consumption of alcohol/drugs
Feeling disconnected from values (i.e. not caring about your health when usually this is something you care a lot about)
Everyone's experience will be a little different. One person might have a lot of fatigue symptoms while another person might have more mood-related symptoms. Noticing and acknowledging what's going on for you psychologically, emotionally, and physically is crucial. It's only by noticing what's happening that we can choose how to respond.
2. Give yourself compassion and validation
Criticizing and shaming yourself is only going to make things worse. Research shows that self-compassion makes us happier, healthier, and more productive and is a much better motivator than self-criticism. Treat yourself kindly and remind yourself that you're not the only one struggling. It is natural for humans to be in tune with the cycling of seasons, so give yourself permission be in hibernation mode a little bit. See if you can love and appreciate the more introverted side of you that comes out this time of year.
3. Use light therapy
Ideally, try to get as much natural sunlight as possible. When the sun's out, bundle up and go for a walk or spend some time by a sunny window. But since there's such a limited amount of natural sunlight, consider supplementing with artificial light. Light therapy lamps can be incredibly helpful. I suggest starting every morning drinking your coffee/tea in front of a therapy lamp.
Exercising regularly can do wonders for your mood and energy levels. But many people feel stuck in a catch 22; they know exercise will help their low energy, but their low energy makes it very difficult to exercise. That's why we need to meet ourselves where we're at. Circling back to tip #2, be mindful of the shame and self-criticism related to not exercising as much as you'd like to.
Rather than focusing on what you think you "should" be doing, listen to what your body is truly telling you it needs. If it needs an energetic workout, then do your best to give it that. But if what it actually needs is 20 minutes of stretching or gentle yoga, honor that. It's okay if for a few months out of the year your relationship to movement becomes more gentle and restorative.
5. Consider vitamin/hormone levels
Talk to your doctor about screening for vitamin d, thyroid, or other deficiencies that could play a role in reduced mood and energy, and take regular supplements if needed.
6. Be mindful of what you eat
Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of health, life, and wellbeing, holds a lot of wisdom about how the foods we consume can impact our wellbeing. In the winter, it can be tempting to eat foods that ayurveda would call "tamasic" - foods that are heavy and contain a lot of oil, cream, or cheese. Eating a diet with a lot of these foods can make us feel even more lethargic and sluggish. We can help lift our energy by eating a more balanced "sattvic" diet. In the winter this would mean eating lighter foods, more vegetables, fruits, and lean meat. In general, it's helpful to take note of how certain foods affect your energy and state of being.
7. Make use of essential oils, crystals, teas, music, and other intentional practices
If you believe that essential oils and crystals have natural healing capacities, great! If you're on the skeptical side of things (like I used to be, I know guys it's hard to believe) think of it in terms of conditioning. Just like Pavlov's dog got hungry and started salivating every time he heard Pavlov's bell, you can intentionally condition a certain crystal or object so that every time you hold it, your body feels a little more energized. Play around with what small practices and cues can help balance your energy.
EO's: sweet orange, lemon, grapefruit, peppermint, rosemary
Crystals: citrine, clear quartz, carnelian
Tea: peppermint, ginger
Music: make playlists of songs that make you feel motivated and energized
8. Establish daily rituals
Daily rituals set the stage for how we feel throughout the day and night. I like to maintain morning, after work, and bedtime rituals. It can be as simple as doing 5 sun salutations every morning, taking 10 deep breaths before you leave work every day, and 5 minutes of meditation before bed every night. Rituals that you can come back to every day will keep you grounded, focus your energy, and help you go about your day with intention.
9. Get mental health support
If you find that you have difficulty managing your symptoms on your own, seeking out a therapist and/or psychiatrist can help you feel less overwhelmed. Use the Psychology Today directory for help finding a provider.
A lot of this boils down to a few very simple (but not necessarily easy!) things: acknowledge where you're at, have compassion for yourself, and listen to what your body needs. Getting in the habit of these things now will help you out a great deal in the months ahead!