The holidays are upon us, there’s an invigorating chill in the air, celebrations to enjoy, but you’re feeling anything but festive? Does your body feel heavy and leaden, your mind sluggish and unclear? When you wake up in the morning, do you look forward to the moment you can get back into bed? I know I do.
If this sounds familiar, you might have seasonal affective disorder. S.A.D. is a type of depression that hits about the same time each year. The exact cause of S.A.D. is not 100% clear but it is likely a combination of seasonal changes in your circadian rhythm and your body’s levels of melatonin and serotonin. Women, people who suffer from depression, and those who have a family history of S.A.D. and/or depression are at the greatest risk for S.A.D.
I have struggled with S.A.D. since I was a child, yet every November I’m surprised by it. I feel like the tin man on my yoga mat, my eyes sit at half-mast, and if I open an email from the Humane Society, I am reduced to a sobbing puddle for 20 minutes. After the initial shock and indignation wears off (it usually takes me about 3 days to say “It’s happening again…”), I put on my big girl panties and deal with it. The following is a list of the things I have found most helpful in managing S.A.D.
1. Ask for help
The worst thing you could do for S.A.D. is to suffer in silence and isolation. You are not alone! It’s just that no one talks about these things because of their own stigma, shame, and judgment. But help is available from physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, naturopaths, and others (and I am happy to recommend amazing examples of all of these). By working with one or more of these professionals, you can determine how to best manage your symptoms. Options may include dietary supplements, acupuncture, massage, talk therapy, group therapy, or temporary anti-depressant medication.
If you feel comfortable enough, tell family and friends how you are feeling, that you have S.A.D. and that you are taking steps to address it. You might even discover that they feel the same way, and together you can find ways to support one another.
If, on the other hand, you tell someone who doesn’t understand, or someone who tells you to snap out of it, thank them for their thoughtful advice and high-tail it out of there. What you are feeling is real and it’s important to surround yourself with a supportive network.
2. Get some light
Getting out of the house in the morning might feel like the last thing you want to do when you have S.A.D. but it can set the tone for the day. Look at it as an experiment: walk down the block or go for a short drive, get a cup of coffee or pick up the paper, walk the dog, walk someone else’s dog. Something about the feeling of sunlight on our faces and the cold air on our skin reminds us of our basic humanity.
If you can manage it, notice the other people around you. Maybe even smile at one or two of them. This tiny gesture can have a surprising impact on how you see yourself and the world. Or, if you can only manage to walk around the block while staring at your shoes, that’s fine too.
As an alternative or adjunct, buy a lightbox with at least 10,000 LUX and use it consistently each morning. Begin with 10-15 minutes and work up to 45-60 minutes every day until about mid-March. (If you find that this works for you, next year you can start mid-to-late September when the days start getting shorter.)
I use my lightbox while writing morning pages but you can read the paper, eat breakfast, watch the news, or read a book while soaking up the light. Or you could just sit there and imagine yourself a beautiful brooding orchid who needs a little extra TLC.
3. Reduce or eliminate alcohol
Full disclosure: I don’t drink alcohol anymore. I stopped several years ago for many reasons, including depression. But I’m adding it here because when I did drink alcohol, it made my S.A.D. much worse.
Though I am not anti-alcohol for other people (if you can enjoy it in moderation, Yay for you!), it’s important to acknowledge that it is a depressant (among other things). Particularly at this time of year, because it is free flowing and tends to accompany every celebration, many people partake in more than their share, only to find their dull, flat feelings worsen.
4. Eat an anti-depressant diet
Part of my anti-S.A.D. therapy is cooking, especially foods known to have a positive effect on mood. Brightly colored foods like spinach, kale, red cabbage, red onions, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes, make for wonderful soups and stews, especially when combined with chickpeas and cumin and served over brown rice. Eat fat liberally, especially olive oil, fish oil, and nuts, and make sure you are getting enough protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Eating the right amount – not too little and not too much – is also important; on days when you might not have much of an appetite, make an effort to eat regular meals and pay close attention to what foods you find appealing. On days that you are ravenous, respond promptly to your hunger, eat mindfully, and stay sensitive to your body becoming full to avoid overeating.
This is the most effective and underutilized non-drug antidepressant available. Do whatever type of exercise feels good to you. For me this has included yoga, pilates, walking, running, swimming, and ballet barre classes. I try to pay particular attention to how the movement feels in my body, and not to do things that feel too aggressive.
At times you might have to talk yourself into exercising. I manage this by giving myself permission NOT to go, but also considering how I will feel afterward. I make it about 75% of the time.
Also, if you do yoga, try a headstand. I can’t explain it, but this has made me feel better. Even if there is no physiologic benefit, it helps me to cheer up and laugh at myself.
6. Be gentle
S.A.D. is not laziness or a lack of willpower; it’s the reflection of changes in your brain chemistry. It can cause symptoms ranging in severity from mere dullness to suicidal thoughts. Once you realize that this is what you are dealing with, make a commitment to be very gentle with yourself. If you need more sleep during this time of the year, so be it. If you need more pampering, make it happen. More affection, ask for it.
A meditation practice can also be extremely supportive in managing S.A.D. because it helps you to deal with the nature of reality. You can observe yourself experiencing feelings of sadness, flatness, or irritability, without adding to your suffering by judging yourself harshly.
At the same time, know that S.A.D. is temporary. It will not last forever. And by noticing what you are feeling, recognizing your needs, and responding as best you can, you will ease this passage.