Seasonal Affective Disorder came into my life in 2013. I was a junior in college and studying abroad in London, in winter. I was in a tiny dorm room with basically springs for a bed. I had left behind my boyfriend at the time, and for the first time I was missing Thanksgiving with my family. The weather was cold and wet and grey. Slowly but surely something dark took over my life.
My mom came to visit me on that trip and on the night before she left, she sat me down in my dorm room, and asked me if I was okay. She told me I had been moody and unkind to her. She told me my spirit seemed dark. When she said those words tears came pouring out of me. She saw what I couldn’t articulate. I was sad. Incredibly sad. Probably depressed. And I had no idea why.
It wasn’t until later that I could identify and attribute these feelings to S.A.D. or seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as seasonal depression. And now every winter, I have a battle to fight. When I lived in California the effects were much less, but since moving to the East Coast I have had to come up with a battle plan. And for the most part it works. So for anyone who deals with something similar, I thought I’d share my tips and hope they help you find some light.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD or seasonal affective disorder is a seasonal depression thought to be caused by lower serotonin levels in the brain due to lack of sunshine. It usually effects people in locations where sunshine is limited during the fall and winter months. (Hence why I was okay in California and a mess in London.)
It should be noted that there is a version of SAD that affects people in Summer. I do not experience this, and so I can’t speak to the feelings or ways to cope with this version.
People can experience SAD to different degrees, ranging from what people call the “winter blues” to a full blown depression. It usually presents itself in early adulthood and can vary from year to year and place to place. I’ve dealt with it in varying levels of difficulty, but I want to note that all versions are valid. If you are sad (even just a little) it matters. It’s worth exploring remedies.
What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?
- low energy
- trouble concentrating
- difficulty sleeping
- weight gain
- lack of motivation
- desire to be alone
- increased moodiness
- lack of interest
- desire to sleep
In my personal experience with the disorder, here are my symptoms…
- I wake up with a general “what’s the point of getting out of bed?” feeling, which isn’t like me because I’m a morning person.
- I am often annoyed with the people I love the most.
- I have trouble sleeping, which is weird because I can sleep anywhere all the time.
- I find myself caring less about work and feel like less of a “go-getter” which causes me to beat myself up mentally.
- I have the desire to say no to going out and doing things, even when I know it would be good for me.
- I snack way more than I normally do.
- Doing things (aka. anything) feels like so much effort.
- General malaise.
- Mentally feeling guilty for all of my lack of motivation but not being able to do anything about it.
- I hit creative walls often.
Essentially my symptoms are the same as WebMD said they would be, but I wanted to give you a more personal view on how these things affect my life. Sometimes it’s more helpful to hear that version, because you can relate more. Maybe it will help you (or someone) understand what they are feeling and that they aren’t alone.
(photo by victoria morris)
How do I cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Since 2013 I’ve spent a lot of time trying new methods of coping with this seasonal foe – some successful, some not so much. As always I believe that every body and brain is different, so what works for me may not work for you. But I have made myself a guinea pig over the years and have a pretty good grasp on how to monitor and care for my own mental health. So I’m sure that at least a few of these things can and will help you cope with the winter blues.
1. Get a happy light.
Happy lights or “light therapy lamps” are created to mimic the sun and boost serotonin levels during the day. You can sit in front of them for anywhere between 10 mins – a few hours a day. I generally keep mine on my desk and turn it on in the morning while I work. I have genuinely seen it help me, especially on days that are grey all day. This is the one I have (not an affiliate link, just a true love.)
2. Exercise. Often.
It is so hard to find motivation to work out generally (but especially if you are struggling with SAD). So I understand the resistance to this suggestion. But I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Boosting your endorphins through exercise is one great way to balance out the lack of serotonin being created. So if you can, I suggest at least 30 minutes of exercise at least 4 days a week. Build it into your life. Don’t make excuses here. Your mental health is worth the sacrifice.
3. Reduce sugar and alcohol intake.
Let’s face it, sugar and alcohol are both depressants, even though they can feel really comforting in the moment. I’m not saying you *can’t* have sugar or alcohol, but I am saying you have to be aware of the brain fog and darkness that will come with it the next day. The less you consume the less you have to deal with the aftermath. So just remember that.
Also, maybe just eat more greens while you’re at it.
4. Reduce stress and anxiety.
Since the lack of serotonin is already causing some darkness in your world, it’s a good idea to also help reduce the other dark feelings you can have like stress and anxiety. These usually go hand in hand with depression, but sometimes need to be tackled on their own. I have tons of strategies for fighting these (and will probably do a separate post on that), but for now here are some of my favorite methods…
- go to a restorative yoga class (or any yoga class)
- meditate (if you’re into that)
- watch ASMR videos
- try out some adaptogens like ashwagandha or maca (I recommend Moon Juice brand and Navitas Organics, respectively.)
5. Make sure you’re getting your vitamins. (Especially B vitamins).
B vitamins are hugely linked to your body’s energy levels. So if you are lacking in them, you can feel even more lethargic than SAD already makes you. That’s why I highly recommend getting that aspect of your vitamins figured out. For me, I switched to a new multi vitamin about 6 months ago and felt a huge shift in energy. I could tell that I had been lacking in B Vitamins and this high quality multi vitamin really provided that for me. (I take Ritual vitamins and am a big fan.) So I think you could start there, but if you don’t want to take a multi vitamin or already do, then you could look into taking vitamin B6 and vitamin B1 supplements. Those will be the biggest help to you in mood boosting and energy.
*I also recommend eating one Brazil nut a day – as they are high in Selenium, which can help fight anxiety. (You don’t need more than one.)
6. Take a CBD supplement.
This is something new that I implemented about a month an a half ago, and I can’t recommend it enough. I had a lot of hesitance and stigma against it before trying it, because I’m not very big into weed. No opposed, but it usually gives me more anxiety. So I didn’t think that a derivative could help, but wow it does. I feel like a generally much better and more fun person. A low grade of constant anxiety is gone.
I take this Turmeric Capsule from Supergood Hemp, because I trust the quality of the product. (The owner is Ashlae of Oh, Ladycakes and I trust her high standards.) The only other company I can recommend is Mowellens, because I have a close friend (that I also trust very much) who swears by their products and quality.
So yes, it’s expensive, but I have found it helpful enough to be worth it. Helpful enough to highly recommend. And if you’re using it seasonally, you wouldn’t have to pay for it all of the time!
7. Say yes.
This is one I have a lot of trouble with since I am both an introvert and a homebody. But all I know is that every time I say yes to a friend or activity or new experience or whatever, my mental state is approximately 1000x better. Get outside of your own mind. Stuff your heart and mind full of wonder and love and conversations and hugs. It will all help. So just say yes.
8. Go outside.
In the same way that it is important to exercise as often as you can, it’s also important to get outside. All too often in winter we go from house to car to office to car to home etc. We miss out on fresh air. We need that in our life. We that connection with life and earth and the air and any hint of sun.
9. Get witchy with it.
This tip isn’t going to resonate with everyone and I’m totally okay with that. If essential oils, lighting candles, burning sage and palo santo aren’t for you, that’s fine. But for me this stuff really works, and I think it all really comes down to setting intentions and clearing space for yourself. I use essential oils to lift my mood or calm me down. (My favorites are this blend from Modern Mystic Shop and lavender for stress relief.) I use sage and palo santo to set intentions and clear out a calming space for myself. Or if you are having a particularly bad day, I use some of these rituals as “reset buttons,” allowing some physical action to symbolize the internal reset I want to take.
10. Practice self forgiveness.
This is the hardest and most important of all of the tips. One of the worst parts of Seasonal Affective Disorder is the endless guilt and shame that comes with feeling under productive, under motivated and generally blah. I find myself kicking myself because I can’t accomplish as much as I normally would, or I don’t have as much of a go-getter attitude as I normally would. So a huge piece of SAD is accepting that this is all temporary and that it’s okay if I am slower for a while. It’s okay for me to do less. It’s okay for me to take more time for rest. It’s okay. That self acceptance and self forgiveness is huge. It’s not always easy to find, but it’s so important to try.
Again, please remember that you don’t have to be clinically depressed in order to take action. No matter to what degree you feel the effects of SAD, all are valid and all are worthy of care. Take care of your mind and body this winter. They’re the only ones you’ve got. xo.