Like everyone, I have spiral-out moments and I’m not immune to anxiety (and, let’s face it, whining) when I’m stressed or when things don’t go my way. Still, I consider myself a generally content person.
That being said, every year after the last leaf has fallen and the days get short, I get a little SAD. 4–6% of the population experiences severe depression in the winter months, while mild Seasonal Affective Disorder affects 10–20% of us. Women are four times more likely than men to feel the symptoms of SAD creeping in on those dark, cold winter days.
It took me years to call my SAD what it is. I thought I just hated winter (for the record I do), and I was hesitant to claim something like SAD as part of my identity. But last winter, when my usual gloom was compounded by the stress of wedding planning and I could hardly find the motivation to drag my cold, cranky butt out of bed some days, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. So I got some help, and I started researching. And guys- there’s good news.
For people with mild SAD like mine, there’s a lot you can do to get ahead of your symptoms and make a plan for a holly-jollier holiday season.
Self-Care Can Save You from the Winter Doldrums
1. Be nice to yourself
Getting in the habit of practicing self-care is essential- even for those who don’t struggle with seasonal affective disorder. Self-care means something different to everyone. Often, just calling attention to some of the external factors affecting our mood helps us take the first step toward feeling better.
For me, it works to remember the basics when I start to feel a funk coming on. I ask myself a couple questions to assess my level of self-care:
-Am I hydrated?
-Am I well nourished?
-Have I rested enough recently?
-Have I been engaging in positive self-talk?
If I answer no to any of these questions, my immediate priority becomes getting myself the care I need. Hello, personal day! It’s important to set good boundaries — especially around work- so you can make sure you’re looking out for number 1.
2. Prepare your nest
When I’m in a slump or feeling stressed out, a disorganized house makes things a thousand times worse. I know winter is coming, so I know I need to get my house in order now. It’ll be a lot harder to get motivated later.
Research has shown that our environment directly affects our mood , so take advantage of the crisp autumn months to do some fall cleaning. Clear out any old junk you don’t need, take care of little lingering house projects, and work to make sure your space feels cozy and comfortable.
Give yourself permission- if budget permits- to pick up a few new candles, comfy throw pillows or fuzzy blankets. If you don’t have the cash to splurge, work with what you have. Rearranging your space can introduce new energy into your home.
While you give your space some love, spend some time consciously anticipating snuggling up with a companion (human or otherwise!), or lounging while you read a good book.
And speaking of books…
3. Get excited about your winter binge-reads
Instead of thinking about winter as a time when you don’t get to do the things you want, think of it as a time you can allow yourself to indulge in the activities you rarely make time for. The perfect indulgence for me is to spend a long afternoon (who am I kidding, a whole weekend) sucked into a book.
If reading isn’t your thing, think about your favorite solo activity, like crocheting, writing, drawing, coloring, basket weaving, baking, podcast-ing, or meditating. It doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is that you take some time now to reflect on how nice it will be to allow yourself to slow down and take time to do something you love. Then, when it does get cold, be diligent about actually doing it.
4. Stay in touch with your support network
You may have read recently about the Danish concept ‘hygge’- pronounced HYU-gah. Hygge doesn’t have a direct English translation, but it loosely refers to the heartwarming feeling of togetherness that Danish people look forward to when the weather turns cold.
In “Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes”, author Helen Dyrbye writes, “Coziness relates to physical surroundings — a jersey can be cozy, or a warm bed — whereas hygge has more to do with people’s behavior toward each other. It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one.”
I personally like to think of hygge as meaning ‘board games over spiced cider in low-light among my closest friends’. One of the biggest struggles I face during the winter is mustering the will to brave the cold and meet up with friends. My solution? Inviting them over. They get lots of tasty homemade treats and I get camaraderie without having to take off my fuzzy knee socks. Win-win!
5. Find a gym-buddy and commit to a schedule
It’s not a secret that exercise improves outcomes for individuals struggling with certain types of mood disorders. But for some reason, at least for me, exercise is one of those things I have to work hard to keep up with.
It used to be that my only gym habit was to go in fits and starts, forget about it completely for months, and then wonder why I was feeling yucky all the time. Rinse and repeat. For years. Now, the hubs and I are committed to two classes at our local gym that we enjoy and attend every week (unless we have a scheduling conflict). The sense of accountability the class creates is the only reason we’ve been able to build a better habit.
It does make a difference. I promise. This year, a friend and I are challenging ourselves to yoga once a day for the entire month of October- I’m thinking of it as a preemptive mood-boosting punch to SAD’s face.
6. Use essential oils
Scent is one of our most powerful senses. Olfactory stimulation activates the limbic system (the region of the brain that controls our mood and circadian rhythm), which means that we can use essential oils to help elevate our moods, improve the quality of rest, and make us feel energized.
You can order high-quality therapeutic grade essential oils for $4-$15 on Amazon, and there are lots of great resources online so you can find the right blends and methods.
If you’re thinking about using a diffuser, I recommend this one. It’s a deal at under $20, and it provides light humidification and an ambient color-changing glow.
7. Talk to a professional
I am not a physician or qualified mental health professional. The tips I’ve listed above are intended for people like me who experience very mild symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter months. But, what works for me won’t work for everyone in every scenario.
If you experience major changes in your ability to cope with stress, attend to the needs of your daily life, or participate in the activities you normally enjoy, please consider seeking help from your doctor or mental health practitioner, especially if you feel hopeless or experience suicidal thoughts. It’s incredible how much it helps with someone who cares and is willing to listen.
Winter can be a great time to lean in to self-reflection and the type of (sometimes uncomfortable) deep thinking that can lead to positive transformations come spring.