Written By Dr. Emily Frey, PsyD Leaves are changing color and there is a cool crisp air circling us now. For many, this time of year is refreshing and lends itself to a culture that involves seasonal activities and getting cozy inside because it is becoming dark out much sooner and it’s a great excuse to turn on the fireplace. On the flip side, these changes may also represent triggers that depressive symptoms are lurking around the corner. This can be confusing because you may really love this time of year while also fear it. It seems unfair that your mind and body can be in such conflict, but you are not alone, as many people deal with Seasonal Depression. Or maybe you just plain hate this time of year. Luckily, there are ways we can prevent and manage it, so please remain hopeful and consider trying some of the following ideas on.
But first, let’s get technical for a minute… Seasonal Depression, clinically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder is often referred to as “The Winter Blues”. It has certainly earned its name and provides a face value definition. Usually, the symptoms start in the late fall, last through winter, and resolve by summer; however, people do experience seasonal depression during the summer as well, it is just less common – still valid though. It is a type of depression that occurs with a specific seasonal pattern, where you experience the same symptoms as Major Depression during that time period, for at least two years:
Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day Feeling sluggish and tired Changes in appetite or weight (Craving carbs is common) Feeling hopeless and/or worthless Having low energy Difficulty concentrating Feeling restless or agitated Isolating (Desiring hibernation) Frequent thoughts of death and/or suicide
I make a point to bring up the topic of Seasonal Depression with my clients around the month of September so we can stay ahead of it. Good news! Not only have I witnessed clients prevent these symptoms by being proactive, I have also received feedback that they were able to enjoy the winter without a depressive episode because they worked at keeping them in check. Even if you were able to just “lighten” the symptoms for yourself, as we cannot guarantee an absence of symptoms by following tips below, reducing and lightening symptoms can give you a better experience. Wouldn’t that be worth considering?
Here are the 9 ways I normally bring up in a conversation, to manage Seasonal Depression, it is not all-inclusive, but there may be something listed that could be worth trying:
1. Direct Sunlight: Our bodies crave sunlight, we need it, bottom line. The change in seasons makes it less available and that certainly has an impact. Obviously, consider your own skin type and sensitivities as you do this, if you need sunscreen and other protection then keep that in mind. Direct sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, plus it has been shown to boost serotonin levels which helps improve mood, focus, and helps keep us calm. The abundance of sunlight in the summer months is likely a protective factor against depression, which is why people are less likely to experience seasonal depression during that time of year.
2. Vitamin D I recommend that you speak with your primary care provider to receive their guidance and recommendation in terms of the amount of Vitamin D you could benefit from. It may involve having a blood test to check your levels before they can provide a recommendation. Some studies have also shown that Vitamin D can help prevent some Cancers – two birds with one stone here!
3. Exercise I know, I know, it is very hard to get up and moving when you already feel sluggish. Remember, engaging in exercise also increases serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels – all the “feel good” neurotransmitters. May I suggest considering Hot Yoga, it often involves meditation, stretching, strengthening, and a nice warm room which gives you the chance to escape the colder weather. You can pretend you are at the beach, if that is something you enjoy.
It does not have to be rigorous and incredibly challenging for you to benefit. The more movement you can incorporate with your body, the more you are combating fatigue and feeling sluggish. Plus, it can be a nice distraction from the negative thoughts that can pop up with depression. Go for a walk, dance, ask a friend to go to a workout class with you, run with your pup, try out that Pilates DVD you have been eyeballing for a while now, and have fun with it!
4. Light Therapy or a “Happy Light” If you have not heard of this, that is totally normal and okay. It is a form of therapy that involves a small light box, which emits cool white fluorescent light often 20 times greater than the amount of light found in typical indoor lighting. The beauty is that they are VERY SIMPLE to use. You place the box next to you for about 20-60 minutes a day or a few times a week, while you are doing other activities (i.e., reading, watching TV, meditating, etc.), and reaping the benefits of the little box as it mimics the effects of the sun in a safe way. Research has shown that most people experience larger effects when they utilize a light that emits 10,000 lux. You can find these at stores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Another plus is that you can find one that is fairly inexpensive. Here is a link for one that has been backed by research and has multiple versions: https://verilux.com/collections/happylight-therapy-lamps-boxes.
5. Activities and Social Life It is hard to see people and go out when your body is saying “staying inside” and you just don’t feel like it. You do not have to be the world’s biggest socialite either for this to help you. Since we are social creatures, it is often healing to be around other people who we feel connected to and studies show that too much isolation increases depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. What I encourage you to consider here is spending time with people who restore you. The same goes for the activities you choose. If you choose people or places that often involve toxicity and drama, you are setting yourself up for feeling badly and that is not the goal here. Close your eyes and think of the people who you feel calm around, who build you up, who you laugh with, and who you are genuinely pleased to be next to. Now, close your eyes and think of the activities that allow you to feel refueled when you are doing them. These are things that may ignite creativity within you, things that transport you to another world through stories or games, things that give you energy rather than drain you. This will vary from person to person. If you are more introverted, then being around too many people will be draining, so consider this and tweak the formula as you go.
6. Mindfulness and Acceptance The more present you are, the less room there is for depression. Now repeat that to yourself. Seriously, you cannot have two thoughts at once, it is not possible. Therefore, the more mindful and present you can become, the more in tune and connected you can be in your life, which means the opportunity for depression decreases. This does not mean that you must be a master at meditation, but it does help to give it a try. Mediation and mindfulness are about being an active observer of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations without over identifying and attaching too much meaning to them (we can also teach you how to do this in therapy). You can start with lighting a candle and focusing on the flame while slowing down and deepening your breathing. As thoughts enter your mind, and they will, just “show them the door” without reacting to them. Expect thoughts to enter, it’s more about what you do with them. You can also engage your senses by mindfully drinking a cup of your favorite coffee (insert other favorite if coffee is not your jam). While doing this, notice what it tastes like, smells like, feels like, and looks like as you slowly sip. Listen to what is occurring around you and take it all in. Give yourself some stillness. We live in a very busy world and sometimes we are uncomfortable with being still, when in reality it can be exactly what we need. There are several ways to practice this and I have included a link for guided meditation here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations
The acceptance part of this involves perspective and being honest with yourself. What is in your control here? Can you let go of what is not in your control? Remember, it is possible that you have gotten through this “season” before and it is likely that you can do it again, with better tools. Also, consider the parts of this time of year that you look forward to and enjoy. Keep in mind, this is all temporary. Plan a Vacation: Here is an interesting fact, research has shown that just the act of planning a vacation can be as rewarding as going. It gives you a chance to escape in a healthy way while you plan and distract yourself. Going on a vacation during this time of year may be a better fit than other times of the year to support your mental health. It does not need to be extravagant or costly. A change of scenery could have a powerful effect.
7. Medication If you are finding that you are struggling with severe symptoms and it is difficult to function, then it is definitely time to schedule with a medication provider and engage in therapy. Medication providers can offer additional help to your regimen and provide additional referrals if needed. There is no shame in incorporating medication into your treatment plan.
8. Therapy If you have never participated in therapy, the idea of going can be overwhelming and intimidating, and you are allowed to feel that. It is worth consideration for many reasons, especially with seasonal depression, as clinicians are there to help you through this by providing you with support and psychoeducation on coping tools. For some, a higher level of care may be needed. Think about it, it gives you the space to talk about anything you need to in a confidential way, that just focuses on you while you are there. Being a human is hard and when do you really get the chance to have someone solely focused on your needs and care? If you would like to engage in therapy, please give us a call at 630-570-0050 (OakHeart, Center for Counseling, Mediation, and Consultation) or visit our website at www.OakHeartCenter.com.
Just by taking the time to read this, you have made an effort to help yourself and that is wonderful! Attempting to prevent and manage your symptoms are key with seasonal depression. Please keep in mind that this is a snapshot of your options and depending on the person the aforementioned ideas may not fit, which is okay. Take good care of yourself.