The clocks “falling back” signify the arrival of dropping temperatures and darker days. And while some people look forward to the wintry weather, the change in seasons can negatively affect those with seasonal depression.
This mental health disorder is widely known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, and occurs when “depression gets triggered by a change in seasons, primarily beginning in the fall through winter months,” said Melissa Dowd, a therapist and therapy lead for virtual health platform PlushCare.
While there could be a host of reasons people experience the disorder, Dowd said research indicates that colder weather, decreased daylight and shorter days can trigger SAD symptoms. Shorter days are believed to mess with your circadian rhythm — that is, your biological clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle.
SAD is a common mental health condition that can affect anyone, including mental health professionals. HuffPost spoke with therapists about how they personally cope with seasonal depression and find ways to still enjoy the colder months.
1. Schedule your life around self-care
“As a mental health professional, I try to take the same advice I give to my clients: Schedule your life around self-care,” Victoria Goldenberg, a psychotherapist and media adviser for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, said of coping with seasonal depression.
“What this entails is time management that prioritises breaks and vacations, as well as tending to my own appointments and family needs,” she said.
2. Accept where you are with your mental health in the moment
Dowd lives in California and has found the shorter winter days significantly affect her energy levels and mood. Dowd explained that she’s learned to practice embracing where she’s at in the moment.
“My meditation practice is instrumental in helping me to accept what is, with non-judgment,” she said. “So, when the weather is gloomy, I try to embrace the opportunity to curl up with a good book or find a new series on Netflix to binge-watch. [I] give myself permission to slow down and be present.”
3. Take a multi-pronged approach to coping with seasonal depression
Research has shown that depression affects not only the brain but the body. Meghan Watson, a resident therapist at Alkeme Health, a digital destination for the Black community to access mental health and wellness content, said she developed a holistic approach to managing seasonal depression. This includes creating a routine with activities that benefit her “mind, body and soul.”
In terms of mental health, Watson seeks out her own therapist and clinical consultations for when challenges arise at work. Additionally, she makes sure “major physical needs like food, hydration and rest are met consistently.”
Watson also engages in “seasonal creative pursuits and hobbies that fit the colder months” for spiritual wellness, such as painting, caring for indoor plants and meditation.
4. Get in touch with your creative side to process your feelings
For Brandon Knopp, a therapist at Alma, a co-practice community and virtual mental health platform, writing poetry during the winter months has been key to processing seasonal depression.
“When I am feeling really stuck, I write poems about either my inner experience, or about something I notice in the natural environment around me,” Knopp said. “After writing my way through my depression, I often return to knowing that my inner experiences are always rich, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable they are to sit with.”
He added that this practice serves as a way to shift his perspective when dealing with discomfort and depression. In fact, studies have shown journaling can alleviate stress and symptoms of anxiety — so pick up that pen.
5. Make a few dietary changes as necessary
Michele Kambolis, a Vancouver, Canada-based therapist and author of When Women Rise, found that adjusting her diet in winter months improves her SAD symptoms.
“Stimulants like alcohol, sugar and caffeine can exacerbate seasonally triggered symptoms of depression or anxiety, so I cut back altogether during the winter months,” Kambolis said. She explained that she boosts “feel good neurochemicals” and amino acids — such as tryptophan and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — by eating more seaweed, seeds, whole grains, green tea and kimchi.
Though more research needs to be conducted, some studies suggest that eating a diet that is abundant in tryptophan can positively impact mood, and upping intake of GABA-rich foods may decrease symptoms of depression. While the connection between gut health and mental health is still up for debate among experts, there’s definitely no harm in adding more nutrient-dense foods to your daily meals.
6. Spend time in the sun
Vitamin D plays an important role in regulating mood, but decreased daylight in winter can interrupt your body’s production of this vitamin. Kruti Quazi, the clinical director of Sesh, an app that offers online support groups led by therapists, said soaking up the sun throughout the day supports her in coping with seasonal depression.
“Sunlight, even in the tiniest amount that occurs in the winter, can help boost serotonin levels and improve your mood,” Quazi explained. “Take a short walk outdoors if it’s not too cold. Have your coffee, tea or hot chocolate along with you to keep you warm.”
Studies have found that taking vitamin D supplements may also decrease symptoms of depression if sunny weather isn’t in your near future. Talk to your doctor about testing your levels and possibly adding it to your daily regimen.
7. Take a holiday if you can
On a similar note, consider saving your annual leave to take a short trip to a sunnier destination.
“Over the years I have learned that if I have a choice, it’s better to take vacations in winter than in summer. Two weeks spent in a warm and sunny climate in January can effectively interrupt the worst stretch of winter,” said Niloufar Nekou, a therapist at Alter Health Group in California.
8. Make your workspace and schedule more mental health-friendly
Staying inside all day during the winter can mean missing out on the few, crucial hours of daylight that boost your mood. Carlos Guerrero, a therapist and the founder of Inspiration Point Counselling in California, explained that he makes changes to his work environment and schedule before winter rolls around.
“I basically will do an ergonomic assessment of my own workspace every time there is a season change,” Guerrero said. “Sometimes placing your computer in front of a window is not the best for lighting, but I will do this so that I can let sunlight come in. … I will also move my client caseload to help me manage my work.”
9. Find simple ways to enjoy the season
In addition to cultivating self-compassion, Aimee Monterrosa ― a California-based clinical director and therapist ― said she’s learned to recognise her “body and mind needed gentle transitions with seasonal change.”
One way she’s learned to appreciate seasonal change is through finding simple things about the fall and winter she enjoys, from cute mugs to comfy hoodies. “More scenic pictures with beautiful light around me, listening to nature sounds, having my favourite scents, and consistent movement in particular helps ease me through the day,” she said.
10. Lean on a support system
Kambolis explained that it’s invaluable to have “open, meaningful, and supportive” discussions with family and friends when coping with seasonal depression. Moreover, as Watson said, even therapists need therapy at times, so don’t be ashamed to seek out professional support.
Though seasonal depression occurs only during certain months of the year, it is no less serious than other mental health disorders. Learn to implement expert-approved skills and build up your support system to help you through the tough season.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.