Today, the shortest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere) is a good day to talk about seasonal depression. At my latitude, there are fewer than ten hours between sunrise and sunset. That’s bad news for people like me, who have a hard time getting up before daylight. If it’s cold outside too, that makes it harder to fight the urge to stay in bed, or at least in PJs, all day. In the winter months I’m more sluggish, prone to irritability and sadness, and more likely to take a negative view of things. I’m not clinically depressed, however, I’m just very affected by sunlight, and the absence of it.
While many people are similarly affected, some do experience a true clinical depression during the winter, whether caused or simply made worse by the absence of sunlight. Here are some tips for coping with seasonal depression, or SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, as it’s known in the clinical literature), gathered from both my experience as well as scientific research.
Wherever you are on the SAD – Depression spectrum, I’ve learned that giving in to those urges to hide under the covers, sleep all day, isolate from people, or use alcohol, food, or other substances to numb your emotional sensitivity just doesn’t work. These things actually feed the depression, and keep it going longer. What works better instead:
1) Move your body! Even though it might feel like slogging through molasses, and your stiff joints may complain loudly, get up and do physical exercise, or some kind of movement. Exercise has been well documented to be one of the most effective treatments for depression – more effective than medication, and without any negative side effects.
When we get depressed, stressed, anxious or fearful, there’s an unconscious tightening of muscles, and a holding in of emotion, that produces a tension throughout the body. We have many expressions for this, including “putting the armor on,” “hardening our shell,” or “holding it together.” This takes effort, and expends physical energy, so if we’re doing it for a long time, we’ll get tired, even to the point of exhaustion. Have you ever felt so exhausted you couldn’t relax or sleep? When that happens, what actually helps the most is to start moving your body.
Don’t overdo it at first, just take a walk, do some gentle yoga or stretching, or any easy movement that will allow those tense muscles to loosen, and will also release neurotransmitters that can improve mood. I recommend this slightly dated but still excellent article on the benefits of exercise in Scientific American Mind: The Exercise Cure – Why it may be the best fix for depression
2) Stop feeding your depression. When mood and energy are low, we’re much more likely to crave sugary foods and drinks, as well as caffeine, to get us going. While anything with sugar will often give a brief burst of energy, it’s the wrong kind of energy, leaving you more depleted after the quick high wears off. And although the temptation to imbibe may be strong, especially around the holidays, keep in mind that alcohol is actually a central nervous system depressant. Both alcohol and sweets will feed depression far more than relieve it. If you want to learn more about why we crave sugar, and how it affects mood, cognitive function and health, I highly recommend Gary Taube’s 2017 book, The Case Against Sugar.
If you are a coffee or tea drinker, it may help to increase your consumption of caffeine a little during the dark days of winter. But leave the sugar out, and try stevia, or any kind of milk (almond, oat, soy, or dairy) instead. If you simply must have a sweet treat, balance it with lean protein (e.g. low fat milk, cheese, or yogurt). Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. If you’re not a big fan of vegetables, try putting them in a smoothie with some fruit, cook them in soup or stew, or stir fry them. My colleague Susan Blanc, nutritionist and cooking teacher, has some great classes and recipes to improve mood and brain health: Kitchen Table Remedies
3) Let the sunshine in. Seasonal depression is often a function of lack of sunlight, which helps our bodies produce Vitamin D, needed to help us regulate sleep, energy, and mood. Fortunately for those of us who live in California, we rarely have to wait very long for a sunny day. If the sun is shining right now as you’re reading this, stop! Use this time instead to get outside and go for a walk, or at the very least, find a sunny spot to sit and soak up some rays for 10 -15 minutes. If the sun hasn’t been out for awhile where you are, and/or you’re particularly sensitive to seasonal depression, you might want to look into getting a light box. Here’s a link to some solidly researched information on how light boxes help, and how to use them safely: Light therapies for depression
4) Do an enjoyable activity. Research from Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy has shown that doing an activity that gives you pleasure or mastery, or both, is one of the most effective ways to get out of a low mood. When we’re down in the dumps, that self-critical inner voice is most active, telling us we shouldn’t do something fun or pleasurable until we get our work done. But if you’re not getting your work done because your mood and energy are low, then you need to reverse-engineer this, because motivation works backwards in depression. So give yourself permission to do a fun activity, something you enjoy and that just might put a smile on your face. Play an instrument, do a craft or hobby, watch a favorite TV show or funny movie – you get the idea. One caveat: do it for 30 minutes to a couple of hours; you don’t get to do this all day!
5) Clean or declutter your space.. If nothing sounds like it would be fun or give you pleasure, you may be suffering from one of the hallmark symptoms of clinical depression: anhedonia, a loss of interest in things that normally are pleasurable. So if that’s where you’re at right now, think of something you can do that will give you a sense of mastery or accomplishment. Pick a fairly simple task, one that will yield a visible result, like decluttering your desk or work space, organizing a drawer, or even washing dishes, and set a timer for 15 minutes so that you don’t get bogged down in it. When the timer goes off, take a break. Then you can choose whether to continue working on the task, or do something else. Clearing a space can help clear the mind. For more tips on how to clean & declutter, 15 minutes at a time, visit The FlyLady (no, she’s not an insect, she’s a human who loves fly fishing and helping people get control of their clutter).
6) Don’t be a hermit.. Depression can make contact with others challenging, so we isolate instead. And the pandemic has made social contact even more challenging, and isolation more common. But humans are social animals, and we are hard-wired for face-to-face connection to help regulate our moods and emotions. Among other benefits, it releases oxytocin, a chemical that promotes feelings of safety, security, and connectedness. So if you’ve been hiding out, relying on social media to feel connected, use your phone the old-fashioned way, and call a friend, or put the phone down and just go talk to someone. Don’t start the conversation with how depressed you are (and don’t talk about politics!) – instead, ask them about what they’ve been up to, or pick a more neutral topic, like the weather, sports, or the latest crop of movies. Make eye contact, and maybe even try a hug.
7) Listen to music. Music not only soothes the soul, but helps us feel connected with others. I recently attended a concert where the audience was asked, “in the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” As I listened, I meditated on how music has helped people throughout history transcend their suffering. I thought about the origins of jazz and the blues, the protest songs of the 60’s, and my own personal soundtrack of favorite albums and artists that have helped me through troubled times (including the song with this line: “Everybody’s had the blues sometime, and everybody knows the tune.”) What are your favorite tunes? Can you sing or play one of them right now?
8) Get out in nature. I have found that one of the most effective ways to relieve my depression, stress, or anxiety, is to go for a walk in the hills near my home, or drive to a nearby regional park for a hike. Not only do I get the benefits of fresh air, maybe some sunshine, and moving my body, but it’s very powerful to ground myself in the natural world. Even if you don’t have access to a park, there are birds, trees, and wild creatures that exist in almost every environment. (The photo with the monarch butterflies was taken in Pacific Grove in February 2016.)
Putting it all together: Reach out to a friend you haven’t seen in awhile, and make a commitment to do an activity together: have coffee or lunch, take a walk in the park, go to a musical performance or art exhibit. Or go for the Trifecta and do all three!
If this sounds overwhelming, remember that motivation works backwards in depression, so you’re going to have to challenge yourself. Consider also that face-to-face contact with people you care about, especially sharing a meal together, stimulates the production of oxytocin, the chemical in your brain that helps you feel safe and connected. Remember that moving your body will release the tension that comes from resisting reality, and may actually give you more energy as it helps produce mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. And finally, don’t forget that fresh air and sunshine replenish essential nutrients that improve mood; and that music (and art) soothe the soul and stimulate right-brain creativity and positivity.
(This article has been updated from a previous article I wrote on 12/21/16.)