When Winter’s Got You Down: Hacks for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Amber Vittoria Illustration - Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s February 2012. I’m sitting on the couch in my Brooklyn apartment facing off with a $119 10,000-lux light box. Thirty minutes of daily exposure are supposed to convince me that winter isn’t just eight months of filthy sidewalk snow, but the light box only reminds me of those Harry Harlow experiments from the ’50s: infant rhesus monkeys separated from their mothers, clinging to synthetic surrogates. Every morning, I plug in my synthetic sun, but my brain isn’t fooled. The black hole of lethargy, carb-craving, and despair continues to swallow me up.

Light Therapy Isn’t Necessarily The Answer.

If you are part of the five percent of the population that experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depression that flares seasonally (usually in winter), you might be sick of hearing, “Have you tried light therapy?”

We have tried light therapy. We know about exercise. And yes, we’ve read about adding more vitamin B9 to our diets via lentils, oranges, and asparagus.

Four times more common in women than in men, SAD has been the subject of a number of debates, ranging from “Is it even real?” (it is) to “What is the source?” Vitamin D deficiency? Sunlight deprivation? A reaction to being less active in winter than in summer? Melatonin? Serotonin? Assuming that different people have different wintertime depressions, light therapy can’t help everyone because it only addresses one root cause. It’s not going to give you vitamin D. It’s not going to erase your past traumatic holiday-season memories.

Many do find it helpful, though. “I was so attuned with the light, that each year on August 10, I could feel that winter was on its way,” says Linda Bernal, a former flight attendant whose constant-travel lifestyle made her Seasonal Affective Disorder tough to navigate. She found great relief in light therapy, and then no longer needed it once she moved to Dallas, Texas, a city that averages 234 sunny days a year.

My depression doesn’t discriminate, rearing its head no matter the season, but the winter kind feels distinct. It’s as if the gray sky seeps through my skull, filling up my head.

*

It’s February 2016. I’m wearing a T-shirt and sunglasses, sitting outside with friends and dogs and children. We’re laughing in a way I associate with summer – full-throated, heads flung back. I’ve relocated to central Mexico, land of flip-flops and Coronas, where the ancient Aztecs used to rip people’s hearts out as offerings to the sun god. Not that I left all my problems at the border. Just one: I no longer suffer through the winters the way I suffered through them in New York, where I lived for nine years.

Escaping Dreary Weather Isn’t Always Possible.

Of course, not everyone with SAD can pack up and move closer to the equator, so many rely on talk therapy, light therapy, antidepressants, or vitamin D supplements. Others do nothing. According to a 2018 study, two thirds of people newly diagnosed with depression (not necessarily SAD) don’t initiate treatment. Some worry about how the stigma of a mental health diagnosis will impact them socially or professionally; others are too overwhelmed by depression to take the next step. The most significant deterrent is money. Low income plus mediocre insurance equals fewer options for quality mental health care. It also means fewer resources for SAD treatment alternatives like salt therapy, saunas, and CBD supplements.

Tight budgets, frustration with past mental healthcare experiences, and treatment-resistant symptoms have led some SAD sufferers down less conventional recovery paths. Or at least forced them to think outside the box. “I got a dog,” says Stephanie Wilbur Ash, a writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I have the meds, the Vitamin D, the lightbox. But the dog is the best. The dog does not care about your SAD. The dog is gonna go outside at 6:45 am and she’s gonna harass you until you make it happen.”

Erin Reilly, an English teacher in Cranford, New Jersey, has had a lot of success with visualization. “I was first diagnosed with SAD 20 years ago and now I am much better at identifying early symptoms of mood changes, so when they start, I visualize lying on a raft with the sun on my back and the water below. It temporarily alleviates the irritability, which can circumvent the whole cycle that eventually leads to major anxiety and depression.”

“Since I live in Quebec,” says writer Laurie Gough, “I know I might start suffering as early as November unless I implement strategies to dodge it. I do like the Danes with their hygge coziness – blankets and pillows while reading in front of the fire. And I do intermittent fasting where I only eat within an eight-hour window. Avoiding late dinners boosts my mood all winter.”

Recommendations for tackling SAD symptoms

Neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral, confirms what Reilly and Gough have figured out: planning ahead is important. “You have three options when you encounter a difficult situation,” he says. “You can take action, you can clarify and remember your goals, or you can realize that you can’t do anything. Action, direction, or acceptance.” One example of direction? Setting exercise clothes out before going to bed, making it easier to “act” come morning.

Mostly, Korb advocates tackling SAD by tackling sleep. “Depression is either insomnia or hypersomnia,” he says. “If your sleep/wake cycle and your circadian rhythm aren’t in sync, you feel tired when you should be alert or alert when you should be tired.” Because sunlight helps to sync your sleep/wake cycle with your circadian rhythm, sunlight deprivation is a sleep-destroyer. He says that during those dark winter months, improving sleep quality will decrease depression symptoms.

Note: SAD is often confused or conflated with Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal variations, so do consult a mental health professional to make sure you have the right diagnosis and treatment plan.

For those who feel consistently lethargic and amotivated (common symptoms of SAD), he recommends resisting the urge to sleep in. “If you feel like sleeping all the time, you shouldn’t,” he says. “Set an alarm. Don’t nap. Go to bed at a reasonable hour.” Like just about everything we’re supposed to do for our mental health, that’s easier said than done. But at least it’s free!

Perhaps most importantly, if you really don’t want to go for a run, “you have to accept that you don’t want to go for a run,” Korb says. “Don’t get mad at yourself for how you feel. Once you stop getting angry with yourself, you might be more motivated to do something. Accepting what you can’t do will allow you to see what you can do.”

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