The winters in Albany, New York, where I went to college, can be brutal. I recall trekking through piles of snow to get to class and work, hoping not to slip. If I didn’t need to go outside, my roommates could find me in the same spot each day, often sitting on the couch watching Grey’s Anatomy or Chicago P.D. under a blanket and eating popcorn. From the window, I could see people covered in layers of clothes, trying to keep themselves warm.
It would feel like a dark cloud came to visit in the winter. Seemingly small tasks like going to class or work felt like a burden, and I would miss several classes at a time, causing my grades to suffer. The social gatherings, parties and events all came to a halt, and I slowly waited for April, when the temperatures would rise and I could feel like myself again.
I’m not alone in these seasonal feelings. In fact, many people are prone to experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression. Hot cocoa, naps and weighted blankets are great, but sometimes, the dreary and cold weather can dampen our mood, causing us to feel heavy and without energy. And so, if you’re wondering whether you’re the only one experiencing these mood changes and other effects, you’re not.
SAD describes a type of depression that occurs when the seasons begin to change, typically in the winter months. Symptoms can include drastic mood changes, increased anxiety, and fatigue resulting in low motivation. Sometimes, people experience summer-pattern SAD too, and your primary location can also affect the severity of symptoms.
If you’re struggling to understand how your mood can be affected by the seasons and weather, the science behind it is simple. Our mood chemicals, otherwise known as happy chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, can experience lower levels when a person doesn’t receive at least 15 minutes of daily sunlight. When these levels drop, it can cause an imbalance in stabilizing our mood and emotions. In contrast, melatonin, the chemical released from your brain to help you sleep better, is released at a higher rate, making you feel lethargic.
Understanding our bodies and preparing for this potential change in our mood is key. It is important we take care of ourselves by filling our cups with positive habits and practices that make us feel good so that we can better handle SAD. I’ve discovered that when I am intentional with my self-care, seasonal depression doesn’t overtake me.
If you’re unsure of where to begin, here are ways to care for yourself:
Utilizing Light Therapy
Constantly being inside can limit the amount of sunlight our body receives in order to produce energy and boost our mood. Studies have shown that daylight increases serotonin levels in contrast to levels on a cloudy, dreary day. Like an internal clock, our circadian rhythms regulate our schedules, letting us know when to wake up or eat.
Light therapy, a practice that involves sitting in direct contact with a light source for a period of time, is a useful substitute during winter months. Light sources like lamps or light boxes help give your body what it’s missing from the natural sunlight by releasing endorphins, another feel-good chemical in our brain. Light therapy can be most effective when done in the morning. The brightness of light varies depending on the person’s tolerance but is normally set at 10,000 LUX (the measure of intensity).
Checking In With a Friend
Being isolated inside with little contact with friends, family members, or partners can leave you feeling lonely. But with technology, it’s easier than ever to connect with those you love. Checking in to talk about your day and make meaningful conversation can ease feelings of loneliness. Try to schedule regular calls or let your loved ones know that you’d like to receive a text each week as a reminder that you’re not alone.
Seeking a Medical Professional
Having difficulty maneuvering through the seasons is common because of the emotional, mental and physical changes. Seeking a medical professional trained in psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy,” can help. Therapy can be done via Telehealth or in person to give you an outlet for your emotions. Some medical professionals can also offer medication if needed.
Nourishing & Moving Your Body
With minimal sunlight in the winter, our bodies may lose essential nutrients and vitamins like Vitamin D, which affect our mood chemicals. One way to ensure our body gets what it needs is by taking vitamin supplements and eating foods that replenish us. Foods like salmon, tuna fish and egg yolks can increase the body’s Vitamin D levels giving you energy.
In addition to taking vitamin supplements and adding nutritious foods to our diet, incorporating movement can also help with seasonal depression. Try simple activities like yoga, dance classes or indoor pilates to get your body moving and energized.
However you decide to care for yourself during the winter months, make sure your practices and activities nourish you. It is okay to give yourself grace and be patient with your body and mind as you slowly recover. If you’re struggling with seasonal depression and feel stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are not alone.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by texting or calling 988.
Brianna Robles is a Brooklyn, NY-based lifestyle freelance writer. Her creative writing platform, Writing My Wrongs, encourages people to share their full story. When she’s not writing, you can find her performing at open mics and trying new restaurants.