It sounds like a title for the new Ozzy album, doesn’t it? 😝 In the winter, I struggle with a condition known as SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, (it’s also known as “Winter Depression” or the “Winter Blues”). It is believed, by many, to be caused by lack of sunlight in the more extreme northern (or southern) latitudes in the winter months. While it is a constant companion to me in the darker months, I try to not let it define my life. It’s something I have to deal with, but that doesn’t mean I have to allow it control over my life. I want to share the tools I’ve garnered to manage this condition with others who may struggle with something similar, to, hopefully, help them as well.
What does SAD Feel Like?
Day after day, the sun sets a little earlier (and rises a little later); grey clouds begin to move in causing several days in a row without sunshine (the only time of year this is, at all, an expected occurrence in the Black Hills). The temperature cools, the first hints of frost (and occasionally, snow!) greet us as they kiss the grass blades in the morning. The days grow shorter and the trees quieter as the songbirds start to head for warmer climates.
Winter is coming!
I actually like winter–in the Black Hills at least–I enjoy it as much as summer. The cold doesn’t really bother me–as long as it stays above 10 degrees or so–and I actually prefer it over the heat of summer (you can always add more layers, you can’t take your skin off). 😝 I don’t mind the snow–especially since, in the Black Hills, it usually melts fairly quickly. There’s also plenty of outdoor activities that we can only enjoy on cold, winter days.
What I struggle with is the dark…”a suffocating, dark fog that slowly seeps in, like something out of a Stephen King novel…it makes you feel as though your chest is being compressed and you can’t take a breath…” That’s the best way I can describe how I feel when my SAD kicks into high gear. It makes me feel claustrophobic, like the walls are closing in…
Tools I Use:
Below is a list of techniques and tools I use to help mitigate the worst of my SAD symptoms. Please understand, NONE of these is a cure. They’re strategies I use to empower myself and exert control over my symptoms:
—Therapy Lamp: There are several versions of this device, but this is the light, therapy lamp I use several months out of the year. These have been documented to help decrease the symptoms of SAD. You have to be careful which ones you buy as they need to provide at least 10,000 lux of light, the minimum wavelength required to stimulate your brain correctly. Unfortunately, the good ones aren’t cheap. However, when you’re experiencing several dark, cloudy days, I find this helps, significantly.
—Vitamin D3: There’s several different brands and strengths of this supplement available. Many doctors (including my own) believe SAD is, at least partially, caused by Vitamin D3 deficiency. Sunlight is the best source of this nutrient–this is different than regular Vitamin D that is found in foods like milk–and, obviously, there’s less of our warmth-emanating friend in the winter months. (My doctor calls these “sunshine pills”; some also call them “happy pills”. Both are apt as they assist in increasing happiness and make the world seem brighter, like sunshine). 🌞 I’m not a huge fan of medication, but, this supplement replaces the exact thing that is lacking in your body. This treatment, along with the therapy lamp, are what I find to be the most effective. I find I garner the best results if I start taking it early in the fall, before the deficiency becomes too great. I usually only need to continue the regime, until mid-March. I also find essential oils to be another helpful, alternative remedy.
–Journaling: I journal, A LOT, throughout the year. Sometimes I write pages, other times, just a a few paragraphs. I find it helps to get whatever is bouncing around in my head out of there. Then I can relax, because it’s been written down! 😉 Sometimes, it also helps me to see the situation I’m stressing about in a more objective light which can make it less anxiety-inducing.
–Staying busy/active: this is a big one. It’s SO EASY to not be as active in the colder months because it’s dark and COLD (it’s also icy, snowy, etc.) You don’t feel like doing anything but curling up under a blanket on the couch. That’s ok, IN MODERATION. Too much of it just feeds into the depression, making it worse and creating a looping cycle. If you are unable to go outside or just can’t bring yourself to face the cold, find ways to stay active around the house or at an indoor gym. Some studies suggest that exercise can be at least as effective as medications in combating the symptoms of depression.
–Coloring: It may sound childish, but I color. That’s right, I’m a 35-year-old who plays with a coloring book. 😁 I’m not particularly artistic, but I find coloring is relaxing and meditative as it allows me to think while keeping my hands and eyes busy, something I’ve found helps me to focus (and I’m not the only one).
–Lots of self-care and patience: don’t be afraid to take time for yourself when you’re hurting. This time of year can be stressful for many reasons, and the upcoming holidays can, often, exacerbate this. Don’t be afraid to take a little down time for yourself (again, IN MODERATION. Isolating yourself completely can also further depressive symptoms). Also, don’t be afraid to talk with trusted people in your life (a therapist, significant other, friends, family, etc.) It’s perfectly acceptable to admit that you’re hurting. Sometimes, just saying the demon’s name takes away some of its power. 👊
–Feel the discomfort: this is a hard one for us in today’s day and age. We don’t like to be uncomfortable for any reason or for any length of time, if possible. Often, with the benefits of modern technology, we can achieve that goal. Sometimes though, it’s helpful to allow ourselves to feel the *ouch!* factor, a little bit. I find what helps me is to accept the disorder as a part of myself, and not to run from the discomfort. It’s something I deal with for several months out of the year, so it isn’t going away. I find trying to run from it only leads to more angst. I get the best results when I allow myself to feel the ache, and then use the coping techniques mentioned above as a balm.
Embrace the Darkness…
Every year, sometime in February, I seem to come to the same conclusion…the dark isn’t so bad. I’m not sure if it just takes that long to beat my spirit down so that I accept it…😳😉, or if, by then, daylight is slowly starting to increase in length, so the darkness no longer seems so bad? Or, maybe, I just finally habituate to it. 😝
One of the goals of this blog is to encourage others to embrace the small joys in life, especially those found in our daily environment. This year, I’m trying to implement that as a tool to limit my SAD symptoms in September instead of midwinter. 😁 Our environment surrounds us with numerous examples of these “little things”, if we just know where to look:
–When the wind isn’t howling, winter evenings in the Black Hills can be a delight! Crystal clear skies *crackle* with the sparkling pinpoints of the millions of stars scattered across them. Shortly after sunset, the sky turns an incredible shade of indigo, blue with a hue that is so beautiful it’s difficult to describe. I only notice it in the colder months. This could be because I’m not usually outside at that time of day in the summer months as the sun sets so much later. It could also be that the sky is only that crystal clear in the winter, as it’s finally free from haze and the smoke from surrounding wildfires. It does seem that this time of year is the only time the evening sky shows the beauty of which it’s truly capable.
–I love the quiet of the neighborhood as we walk the dog in the evenings (remember to exercise!) That time of day is so peaceful, once people have finished rushing home after a long day at work and only the neighborhood deer–and an occasional dog barking behind a nearby fence–accompany us. Noises sound different in the crisp, winter air. They carry almost a *twang* as they reach your ears. The air smells different too, as it silently bites at your nostrils with every frozen breath you take. You can almost taste the metallic smell of snow and frost. There’s also only one time of year you can hear the rustle of downed leaves underfoot. 😁
–Whoever planned the holidays to coincide with the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere was a genius! 😁 People in our neighborhood like to decorate their homes this time of year (maybe they all just hate the dark as much as I do). 😉 From the first of October through the middle of January, light-up ghosts, pumpkins, reindeer and nativity scenes decorate porches and yards, which definitely help put a damper on dark thoughts. 🎅
–When you look out across your neighborhood on cold mornings and see steam and smoke rising from furnace pipes and chimneys, it’s like a scene from a children’s picture book, or a Norman Rockwell painting.
–When a jet from the local Air Force base flies over at extremely low altitude with afterburners blazing! (Ok, this one isn’t so tranquil, but it is pretty cool! 😳😁)
For anyone who struggles with this frustrating condition, I hope you are able to find unique, comforting things in your own life that bring you joy. Winter comes every year so, we may as well find a way to embrace the darkness!