By Jordan Teige-Evans, LCPC
It’s that time of year in the Midwest again. The days are getting shorter and the the weather is getting cooler. While a lot of us love fall because of the the break from the hot summer sun and humidity, the change in the colors of the leaves, and let us not forget all things pumpkin spice, there are many of us who are starting to get nervous because winter is just around the corner. For many, winter means depression. I’m starting to have a lot of conversations with my clients about this in hopes that seasonal depression doesn’t just sneak up on them and that we can talk about some strategies that may help them cope better. In this article I’ll talk about my top tips for people who struggle with Seasonal Depression or even just generally the “winter blues”.
1. Plan Ahead
If you know or suspect that you will be impacted in a negative way by the change in seasons the best thing to do is to be proactive. This is a good time to start talking about it with your therapist, psychiatrist or other doctors, and loved ones so they can support you. This might be a good time to discuss medications you are taking or get lab work done to determine if you are deficient in any essential nutrients that can impact your mood. It’s also helpful to identify potentially difficult or stressful situations that may come up so you can cope ahead. Lastly, plan some fun things to do this winter so you have something fun to look forward to. Some ideas include making plans with friends for dinner, attending events like concerts or plays, or even planning a weekend get-away if your budget allows.
2. Keep a Routine
Most humans thrive on a sense of structure and routine. Not only does it help us plan and prepare, but it keeps our bodies regulated in terms of mood and sleep. If you are already a well-oiled machine, try to make sure you are continuing a healthy sleep-wake cycle, eating at regular times, and maintaining any other healthy habits that are a part of your routine. Battling the winter can be hard enough, don’t make it harder on yourself by re-inventing the wheel so-to-speak. If routine and structure is something you already struggle with, the fall might be a good time to think about establishing some structure by creating a morning or bedtime routine.
3. Stay Active
Staying active can mean different things for different people, but we’re talking about finding a way to move your body on a regular basis. Most of us are a lot more active when the weather is warmer because it’s more fun to do things like be outside, go for walks, and exercise. We are probably more inclined to do things like park our cars a little further away rather than fight for the close spot or go for a hike when the weather is nice. This means that overall people are a lot more sedentary in the winter contributing to both physical and mental health problems. Find a way to keep some activity going in your life. Whether you join a gym, work out at home, take the stairs, or walk around an indoor mall just do something! Exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on mood by enhancing things like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.
4. Watch What You Consume
The holidays are notoriously filled with gatherings that center around food and drinks. While these things in moderation can be fun and bring people together, used in excess they can cause problems. Be aware of consuming excessive amounts of high sugar foods and alcohol or other substances. Doing so is known to have a negative impact on mood and can potentially lead to other physical health problems. We're not saying don't do it at all, but try to balance it out with eating energizing, nutritious foods on regular basis and drinking lots of water to stay hyrdated.
5. Change Your Mindset
I think we are conditioned from a very young age to idealize summer and loathe winter. Just like anything . . . if you tell yourself something is going to be awful and you’re going to hate it . . . it’s going to be awful and you’re going to hate it. Instead of focusing on all of the things you dislike about winter try listing some of the good things about it! This is called reframing your thoughts in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For example . . . I look forward to the holidays, time with family and friends, the look of a first snow, no bugs, and good hair days every day! You might find that you don’t hate winter as much as you think you do when you take a more positive mindset.
6. Talk To A Therapist
Last but certainly not least . . . there is nothing wrong with getting some help from a therapist. I have listed just a few general strategies that I have found to be helpful for my clients but this list is not by any means exhaustive. If you do suffer from Seasonal Depression, you may need some additional strategies and support to help you cope well through the winter.
Keep in mind that this article doesn’t touch on grieving during the holidays. I think that is a topic that is deserving of more than just a few sentences at the end of a blog post, but I don't want to leave it out entirely. For those who are grieving the loss of a loved one during the winter or the holidays, talking to a therapist to process those feelings is a really healthy way to cope with the pain of loss.
The bottom line is that the seasonal depression is a really common problem. If you notice yourself feeling down, lacking energy, wanting to oversleep, avoiding social situations, having difficulty concentrating or being irritable during the winter-time you could be suffering from Seasonal Depression. The good news is that it is highly treatable and people can find relief from symptoms by using tools that work for them. You don’t have to wait for your mood to become low to talk with professionals. Get ahead of it so you can get support and treatment suggestions.