A few years ago, I woke up one spring morning and felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest. I was suddenly infused with energy and excitement. It was only then that I realized I’d been depressed for months.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common condition in latitudes far from the Equator. I never really noticed a seasonal change in my mood until I moved north from semi-subtropical Houston to North Carolina. The change was even worse in Maryland. And last year, combined with perinatal depression and anxiety, I had a rough few months. I read a lot about SAD and learned some great ways to manage it that I want to share with you all.
There is not a solid consensus on why people experience SAD. It’s mostly believed that some people are sensitive to the decrease in sunlight in winters. For some, this produces mild symptoms that might not even be recognized. But for others, SAD can be truly debilitating.
Common symptoms are fatigue, increased appetite, loss of interest in activities, anxiety and body aches. Some people can actually have variations of SAD that trigger episodes in summer.
It’s here that I feel the need to write that I’m obviously not a doctor and this post is not intended for you to self-diagnose. If you recognize this pattern in your mood, talk to your doctor.
If you find this post in a moment of despair, please know that there is hope.
Here’s how I deal with Seasonal Effective Disorder
I bought this light and plan to use it again this fall and winter. It’s recommended to start in early fall with small doses of daily exposure. Pretty much, you’re telling your brain that it’s daytime even when the sky indicates otherwise. It’s been helpful for resetting and maintaining my internal clock, which brings me to the next strategy…
I tend to take an afternoon nap when the sun starts setting at 4:00, which throws off my circadian cycle. I’ll be exhausted at dinner and wide awake at 2 AM. Keep track of your sleep and maintain a schedule that makes you feel best. Last year I tried a Jawbone tracker, but having a new baby made my sleep super unpredictable. I might give it another go this year.
You don’t need anything making you feel more sluggish. Even though they might be what you crave, carbs and sugar will only make you feel worse. Instead, keep high-protein snacks like nuts or cheese. You can get fancy with some seasonal varieties.
Make certain foods special for the season. Lentil soup simmering in a pot or hot chocolate in a pretty mug are simple ways to make a day special.
Vitamin D is also something to add to your diet. We tend to be more deficient in D when the days are short and the sun’s rays are at a low angle. Other supplements to look into include fish oil and magnesium.
Welcome the season
The long nights are the reason for so many fall and winter holidays. But not everyone celebrates those holidays and even for those who do, they may actually cause more stress.
Rather than focusing on holidays, choose to welcome the new season as you’d like to. Decorate your home, observe what changes are happening in nature, bring our your cold weather clothing, and eat seasonal foods.
In the fall, be that squirrel preparing for the winter ahead. Forage!
In researching ways that people who live in extreme latitudes deal with long winters, I learned about the Danish idea of hygge. It basically means that you bring in as much light, warmth, and coziness to your atmosphere as possible.
In my home that means extra blankets, a smaller living room setup (I moved the couch.), LED twinkle lights, and inviting friends over. We also have a fireplace in our building’s clubroom. It’s the ultimate in warm and cozy.
As homeschoolers, we have the flexibility to, well, stay home if we want to. It’s wonderful. But it’s also easy to slide into hermit life. Don’t let yourself make excuses to stay home all week. Get out in any way possible.
Exercise is a great thing, too. I know this is on every ‘feel better’ list but that’s because it works so well. It’s tough to find the energy or time, but something about the act of taking care of yourself is so mood lifting. I don’t do much— just walk on the treadmill while I watch a show. It’s really worth it.
When you solve a problem or complete a task, you get a little reward in your brain called an endorphin. It’s the same chemical that’s activated when you exercise. So work a puzzle, read a book, get stuff done.
Set yourself up for success by making tiny, bite-size goals. Mine might be *finish writing this blog post* or *fold this pile of laundry.* Making the intention to do a task and staying focused is key.
Do something CREATIVE
I find that my creativity sinks when I’m not feeling well. It’s like my brain is spending so much effort in making it through that it doesn’t have anything left for fun. But creativity is such a mood lifter. Paint with your kids, take photos of your everyday life, tinker with a box full of odds and ends. This is important self-care.
I talk to my kids a lot about the changing seasons. I also tell them how when it’s winter, I don’t always feel so great. One of the most important things I want my kids to learn from me is how to recognize when something isn’t right and take care of themselves. I talk to them about all the things that I do to feel better. It’s great because it gives them the language to talk about their thoughts and feelings.
For some, prescription medications can help regulate the brain chemistry. Even if you don’t need them year-round, antidepressants might be helpful for a few months in the fall and winter.
I have an aunt who used to spend her fall and winters in Texas and the rest of the year in Minnesota. This is the dream, right? Even if you can’t have a snowbird lifestyle, try to plan a vacation or break in the middle of winter to get a break from the climate.
I hope this post will be useful for dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I think just awareness and vigilance are a big help. Starting early in the season is also a good way to maintain your mood. It’s much easier to maintain than to pull yourself up later on!
Do you deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder? When did you realize it? How do you cope?