With winter only a month away, the cold, wet, dreary climate that induces seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is approaching fast. Folks with this form of depression know it to be extremely disruptive to their personal and professional lives. Its onset — sometimes insidious, sometimes sudden — often blindsides many who don’t otherwise live with major depression. And unfortunately, SAD can plague those with major depression, too.
One important note about SAD is that it’s not a lighter or milder form of major depression; “seasonal” is simply a specifier. In fact, because unavoidable climate changes cause SAD, some might attest that they’ve experienced SAD as the most persistent form of depression they’ve ever had. On top major depressive symptoms, SAD also includes physiological dysregulation of the circadian rhythm, the sync of our body clock with daylight and sunset.
Research on treatments seems stagnant, despite the prevalence of SAD. Many informational articles out there recommend the same handful of treatments, such as aromatherapy, antidepressants and vitamins, counseling, meditation and light therapy or dawn simulation. Others suggest the same lifestyle changes, like exercising, getting outdoors, journaling and sticking to a schedule. That’s about it, which is alarming. For that reason, I decided to think up some other creative and pragmatic ways to help beat SAD. I hope this helps!
1. Buy a workbook.
If you’ve ever gone to therapy, you’ve probably had a therapist who assigned you “homework.” Many of these assignments, usually worksheets or writing prompts, come from workbooks therapists use to brainstorm ideas for sessions with clients. They can focus on a wide range of issues, from improving body image and self-esteem to managing anger and certain mental illnesses. These books, mostly written by therapists, also engage readers in the author’s real, personal narratives or those of anonymous clients, which makes for interesting reading material and exercises that facilitate self-reflection.
This fall and winter, make the most of staying inside by taking a personal journey within. While seasonal depression can trigger and/or exacerbate stressors, it also presents a chance to rediscover your resilience and your strengths. So get on over to Amazon, or to the self-help section of your nearest bookstore or library!
2. Try virtual therapy.
For most people, mustering up the energy to commute to therapy through ice and snow is completely out of the question. Yet, with seasonal depression, avoiding or pausing therapy is arguably the worst form of self-sabotage, even during the dead of winter. Fortunately, virtual therapy can come to you. Don’t feel like brushing your teeth, or matching your clothes today? No biggie.
With Psychology Today’s search filters, you can easily find therapists who offer “virtual therapy,” “talk therapy” or “video counseling.” Another option is Talkspace. With deals as cheap as $49/week, it’s become increasingly popular, especially for those without insurance. It also has a texting option!
3. Beware of nighttime depression.
Many people with seasonal depression feel fine during the daytime, but as soon as the sun sets, they experience a drastic shift in mood. “Nighttime depression” looks similar, except it can occur year round. While nighttime depression is not a formal diagnosis, it’s nevertheless a legitimate mental health concern, especially since earlier sunsets during fall and winter can exacerbate it. It can make seasonal depression feel twice as long.
So, what causes it? One prevailing hypothesis posits that nighttime is when we interact least and are most tired, which leads us to ruminate by ourselves, in our heads, right when we have the least brain power to think clearly. Thus, we’re more prone to feel hopeless, empty or isolated. With nighttime depression, the difference between your perspective during day and night can be jarring.
Since this can also be the case with seasonal depression, it’s important you evaluate what your emotional patterns were like before the start of fall and daylight saving time. This will allow you to figure out whether you should be more intentional about treating your depression during a certain time of the day (or rather night).
4. Unplug during the holidays.
During the winter holidays that are typically spent with family, there’s probably no other time of the year when there’s more social media engagement — and yet these holidays aren’t always a fun-filled time for every family. In a sense, our culture makes it impossible to celebrate holidays without constant reminders of family. If you’re estranged from your parents and siblings, for example, scrolling down your timeline might be painful. To see a barrage of photos of what you wish your family could become can be triggering and unnerving.
So, if you struggle with seasonal affective disorder, take care to focus on who you do have, not who you don’t. And sometimes, this means limiting what’s on the screen right in front of you.
5. Skip “cuffing season.”
“Cuffing season” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There, I said it; I’m sure I burst your bubble. However, the fact of the matter is that flings usually end up with someone hurt, which means a lot is at stake for someone with depression. Don’t get me wrong, it’s healthy to revel in the affection of intimacy, and to enjoy the infatuation of new relationships. But, many don’t realize that seasonal depression can get so severe, they can easily become addicted to unhealthy coping mechanisms like reckless intimacy and romance.
On the neurological side of things, depression drives one to pursue the most convenient dopamine rush at any cost. Like espresso, infatuation and intimacy provide this, only physically and emotionally. And this emotionally-charged rush can be so powerful it temporarily rewires the brain. So, each time you daydream about that fairytale wedding with someone you just met, or send that risky, midnight text, your willpower gets weaker and withdrawal more intense. Suddenly, you’re in a whirlwind of codependency, and maybe even abuse or toxicity. I’d even go so far as to avoid media that romanticize love in unhealthy ways.
Even if they tend to last past winter, cuffing season flings — much like rebound relationship — take off fast and crash just as quickly. Therefore, it’s important to remember that seasonal depression can make you doubly vulnerable to a winter fling — one time for getting carried away too fast, and another time for the hard landing when you come down from the high. All of this sounds too sobering, I know, but life comes at you fast when you ignore your mental health. So, instead of running from being depressed and single, reframe that loneliness as solitude, and avoid the shortcuts (and pitfalls) along the way to wellness.