Beating the Winter Blues

Most of us are familiar with signs of winter: A fresh blanket of snow lays on the ground, a bitter chill hangs in the air, and warm clothing comes out of storage. One might curl up on the couch to watch a movie with a warm cup of hot chocolate and a comfortable blanket. For a few months, the world appears almost frozen in time, and as the holidays roll around, people are sparked with the joys of giving and the warmth of family.

Although winter is a beautiful time of year, it can also be the most difficult. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects an estimated 10 million Americans. Risk factors include living a far distance from the equator, having a diagnosis of depression, and having a family history of SAD. Starting in late fall and lasting until spring, those impacted with SAD may experience low energy, increased sleep, overeating, weight gain, and social withdrawal.

I often say that I turn into a different person in the wintertime. My mood can be compared to that of a grizzly bear, I want to sleep all the time, and my thought patterns become incredibly negative. This year, I wanted to make a change and attempt to view winter more positively. Although I realized that challenging negative thought patterns is helpful, I quickly realized that I would need to do more to cope with my winter SADs (….. get it?).

Here are 3 helpful tips:

Go Towards the Light

Lack of exposure to light is one of the obvious causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder. During cold weather, most of us find ourselves staying indoors to keep warm. However, it may be important to bundle up, brave the cold, and bask in the sunlight as it presents. On days that the sun doesn’t shine, one can take advantage of light therapy, or phototherapy. This involves utilizing a light box, which is a lamp that shines artificial sunlight. You can find a list of great options for light boxes by clicking here.

Stock up on Vitamin D

Less sunlight means that there is an insufficient amount of vitamin D being produced in our bodies. It is important to incorporate foods that are rich in vitamin D into our diets to create more dietary balance. So dive into the snack closet, but make sure your snack closet is full of goodies that will help boost vitamin D. Foods that are rich in vitamin D include, fish, eggs, mushrooms, fruits, and vegetables.

Stay Active

I find this to be the most difficult task during the winter. I love exercising outside, but it is almost impossible for me to dig up enough motivation to throw myself into the cold whips of winter. So in my attempt to remain active throughout the chilly months, I have found myself doing a lot of yoga indoors. I love yoga for its gentleness and mindfulness, which I definitely need more of during the winter, and I also find that it is a fantastic strength workout!

Okay, Wellness Warriors, this is where we all come together and collaborate within our community!! What do you do to cope with winter blues?

Digging up the Roots of Depression

Anyone can experience sadness, grief, and despair (assuming one has the emotional capacity), but not everyone will experience depression. Depression is characterized by loss of interest, lack of pleasure, changes in appetite or sleep, irritability, low energy, decreased mood, among other symptoms that can have a severe impact on daily life. Try to picture being a slug with no hope and no desire to do anything- that’s depression. It’s like trying to run against the current… while underwater… and someone forgot to give you a scuba tank so you could breathe. Depression is as abundant as the common cold, and it is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Although previously believed to stem from chemical imbalance, we now know that root of depression lies among a variety of risk factors, including physiological, environmental, emotional, and situational circumstances.

Physiological factors may include genetics, diet, hormonal imbalances, or chronic illness. Both of my parents were diagnosed with clinical depression at some point in their lives. In my own case, an extensive family history of depression put me more at risk for developing depression myself (I like to call it The Double Whammy). So, while this encouraged me to learn some skills early to manage depression, I didn’t quite understand what it would actually feel like to be- in the words of a client- “cuckoo-nuts,” until it got severe enough that I couldn’t work through it on my own. In some cases, poor diet or hormonal imbalances can relate to decreased energy or mood, influencing depressive symptoms. In my case, this was a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. I’d feel depressed and lose my appetite, have candy or chips or nothing for dinner, and then feel MORE depressed because I was eating like garbage. Often, individuals with chronic illnesses, sleep disorders, or other health concerns experience depressive symptoms, as well, particularly if these conditions cause challenges completing daily tasks and living a fulfilling life.

Depressive symptoms may also be affected by environmental factors. For example, if someone lives in a stressful or chaotic environment, that person may be more likely to experience depression. My own depressive symptoms heightened after moving to the suburbs. Living in a house that I could not afford, working two jobs, and living far from my friends created financial stress, lack of self care, and isolation. I found myself hiding in my room with debilitating anxiety at the thought of coming out of my cave and engaging with my manipulative roommate and her bro-in-denial boyfriend- which often meant navigating my way through stale marijuana smoke and Patron. And don’t get me wrong, I am far from prude, but this wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted or expected when I moved. My inability to cope with feeling stuck in an unhappy and unfulfilling environment was a major factor in my depression spiraling. Additionally, environmental factors may affect those living in a setting with increased violence, domestic disturbance, or crime.

Individuals who experience low self esteem, pessimism, or have a history of physical or emotional trauma may be more susceptible to symptoms of depression. This can be more apparent in people who lack coping skills or positive outlets for emotions. I used to have a saying: “Turn your sadness into anger, and lock it up in a box.” Now, picture me screaming this from the tallest rooftop: THIS WAS NOT HELPFUL. It took a LONG time to realize that feelings are normal and okay, and pretending it does not exist does not mean a feeling goes away. It just means that it’ll eventually come up more bubbly and more aggressive than before, like an exploding pressure cooker, or manifest in symptoms of depression or anxiety. And so, my new saying is: “Listen to yourself.” We experience emotions for a reason, and, whether they are accurate or not, they all deserve to be respected and acknowledged.

Last, but certainly not least, feeling sad is not the same as experiencing depression. Let me say it again: feeling sad is not the same as experiencing depression. However, if you are a human you have probably encountered a situation that has caused you intense grief- and if you haven’t, give me some of those unicorn-and-rainbow sunglasses you’re wearing. Life transitions can be complex. Death of a loved one, issues in work or school, relationship problems, financial issues, moving- these are all situations that can cause one to feel stressed, overwhelmed, distraught. These are some of the situations that I deem the “Big Bad Sad-Makers.” Major life changes can affect daily routine, cause anxiety, and manifest symptoms of depression. If emotions that come from these situations cause disruption in your ability to engage in daily life, it’s something to look at more closely.

While these are common roots of depression, they are surely not the only ones, and many individuals experience more than one of these risk factors for depression. Take me for example- all four of these things joined up to make me a tiny burrito of sadness! From the time I was in college, factors have been coming in and out of my life to cause disruptions in mood, and the one thing that encouraged me most in dealing with my depression was learning about my depression. Everyone has a different experience with mental health, and if I can offer you one piece of advice in tackling your own mental health concern, it is to learn about it. It’s like Voldemort- Harry had to learn about Voldemort’s history, strengths, and weaknesses before he could defeat him. Yes, I just turned Mental Health into a Harry Potter reference… and I think it’s my proudest moment of the day.

Thanks to @depression-patriciajordan.com for inspiring me to write this. It’s not a simple answer, but it’s an answer none-the-less.