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Seasonal Depression: How to Cope During the Gloomiest Time of Year


It’s that time of year again when we set our clocks back an hour, it gets dark outside at 4:30 pm, and if you’re like me and live in the northeast coast region of America, it’s always fucking cold. Even with the season approaching branded socially as “the most wonderful time of the year,” many people find themselves routinely struggling with their mental health instead of having a joyful time. Unfortunately, I am one of those people and while I may struggle with mental health throughout the entire calendar year, winter just seems to make it that much worse. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) but why does this happen and how does one cope? 

Seasonal affective disorder describes an individual who goes through short periods of time when they feel sad or unlike their usual selves that many begin and end when the seasons change. For example, someone “may start to feel “down” when the days get shorter in the fall and winter (also called “winter blues”) and begin to feel better in the spring, with longer daylight hours.” The mood changes range from case to case, but in some may be more serious and affect how an individual feels, thinks, and handles daily activities. The type of SAD specifically associated with displaying symptoms in late fall/early winter is most common and is known as winter-pattern SAD or winter depression. For those to experience symptoms during the spring and summer months, this is known as summer-patten SAD or summer depression and is less common. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “SAD is not considered a separate disorder but is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year” meaning the symptoms for SAD are associated with those of major depression. However, some specific symptoms differ for winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD, and not every person may experience all the symptoms. Some of the symptoms of major depression include feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, having difficulty concentrating, feeling sluggish or agitated, etc. Winter-pattern SAD specific symptoms include oversleeping, overeating, and social withdrawal while summer-pattern SAD specific symptoms include trouble sleeping, poor appetite, and anxiety, etc. You can find a more extensive list of possible symptoms here.

Winter-pattern SAD is the most common among people and is the one I’m most familiar with as I experience it myself. In my opinion, the holiday season can tend to make seasonal depression worse because of the constant reminders of happiness and the pressure to enjoy the holidays when you already feel terrible as well as the stress due to the financial obligation of purchasing gifts. For others, holidays may bring about depression for other reasons such as the loss of a loved one. No matter what the reasoning may be, “holiday depression” is also a common phenomenon. According to Healthline, depression is common during the holidays for a variety of reasons including social isolation and grief. With it being the holiday season, and time for cheer, I imagine it is difficult for many individuals who suffer from SAD or holiday depression. So, here are a few ways that may help some cope and maybe brighten your mood a little bit during the season for holiday cheer.

*Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and this is just my PERSONAL ADVICE. If you or a loved one is suffering from any mental illness please consider seeking professional guidance*

1. Make Plans 

Depression tends to most easily creep up when we self-isolate. To some extent, we all need social interaction, even when we feel like we always want to be alone. Making plans, not just during the holiday season but also all year round, can help combat depression as social interaction can boost feelings of wellbeing, especially when you’re around loved ones. If you feel you have no one to spend time with, try going to a park and striking up a nice conversation or just saying hi to a stranger at the grocery store can help, even if for a moment. Also, if you really need someone to talk to, don’t be afraid to reach out to suicide prevention hotlines as they are available 24/7 and are always there for extra support. 

2. Go For Walks 

When we become depressed, we may have the tendency to stay inside all day or become too busy to spend time outside and take a breather. If you are able, going outside and taking a walk during the day can be a great way to boost serotonin levels (and if you’re looking for other ways to boost serotonin levels, try slowly sucking on some dark chocolate). Additionally, according to the National Institute of Health, many people with SAD often have vitamin D deficiency. Therefore, going for a walk and getting some sun whenever possible is a great idea. Playing music during a walk can also be a good way to detach from reality for a moment and relax!

3. Light Therapy 

This form of therapy, a SAD treatment since the 1980s, aims to expose those who have it to a bright light every day to replace the lack of natural sunshine in the darker months. During this treatment, the individual sits in front of a very bright light box every day for 30 to 45 minutes during the winter months. Because this treatment utilizes a lightbox, it is safe for most people but there can still be risks for certain people so seek professional guidance before attempting this. Still, if you are able, it is a great way to cope.  

4. Exercise

One of the most common methods of coping with depression is exercise and for good reason. Physical activity is scientifically proven to be good for our mood. “Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication.” Whether it’s 15 minutes of Just Dance or 2 hours of pilates, any type of movement is good not for the brain but for the body as well!  

5. Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), also known as psychotherapy, is a type of talk therapy that attempts to teach an individual how to cope with difficult situations. It has been adapted for people with SAD that focuses on replacing negative thoughts associated with the winter season with more positive thoughts. If you have access to the right resources, this can be a good method for coping with depression.

Yes, the holidays can be a difficult time for many of us but it doesn’t have to be. There are ways that, if you are open to them, can make dealing with any mental health problems during the holidays easier now and in the future. The first step to a healthy mind is building healthy habits. Remember you are not in this alone! 

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