BY JEN OLENICZAK BROWN
Every year, it happens like clockwork: the sun starts to set at what seems to be mid-afternoon. You make dinner, clean up, and are ready to go to bed, so you look at the clock and realize the horrific truth: it’s only 7 pm.
But it’s so dark. Your energy is zapped; you feel meh…and it’s so dark!
For years I had no idea what happened to me in the late fall and winter months. Every year I would start feeling exhausted, upset, and ready to go to bed earlier than ever before. In the beginning, I didn’t talk about it with people, because like most mental health struggles, I felt the stigma around conversation.
The more I talked to people…the more I realized that this is a pretty normal thing. This change of seasons that results in a sort of depression, otherwise known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects more than 20% of Americans. Often called casually the “winter blahs” SAD can be a major depressive disorder that is four times more common in women than in men. While I’m not a medical professional, and people should see their doctor if they are experiencing symptoms of SAD, we don’t openly discuss mental illness enough – and should. The stigma disappears when we openly discuss!
According to American Family Physician, SAD includes symptoms like:
-A change in appetite (especially a craving for sweet or starchy food)
-Heavy arms or legs
-Drop in energy
-Increased sensitivity to social rejection
-Avoidance of social situations
For me, it was the drop in energy more than anything else. Like I mentioned, as soon as it got dark and cold outside – or even cool! – I would immediately notice a dip in my energy that would last until that first week of beautiful spring weather when things warmed back up. Which makes sense, because this winter depression is believed to be caused by a lack of sunlight.
So how do we deal with this? Again, as I mentioned, I’m not a medical professional – but there are some things that help me get through these nasty winter months, and I’m more than happy to share with all of you!
Talk to People
I’ve been through a lot with my depression, both serious and seasonal, as well as my anxiety. The absolute worst thing I did across the board for all of it? Keep it to myself. The more I talked about it with my family, close friends, and therapist, the better I started to manage what I felt so ashamed about. Shame is an incredibly nasty emotion – talk about what you’re struggling with to people you love and trust. I promise they won’t judge you.
Sunlight, All the Sunlight
Also, wear sunscreen.
Real talk: I try to get outside in the sunlight as much as possible during these months. Even if that “get out” is setting up work in a sunny part of my home, I make sure it happens whenever possible. I’ve also invested in what’s called a “happy lamp” – a light that emits vitamin D like the sun! It’s pretty concentrated, so I only use the happy lamp for 30 minutes a day…otherwise, I feel like I’ve just had a pot of coffee.
Eat and Drink Well
What I eat is directly related to how I feel – if I’m skimping on food or eating junk all day and drinking that pot of coffee that I think I need, I end up feeling so much worse than if I take time to eat food that I enjoy AND is good for me.
For example, this morning I wanted to drink another cup (pot) of coffee – but I knew how much better I would feel if I drank water. Fast-forward to writing this for all of you, and I’ve drunk several glasses of water and feel much better (and hydrated). This doesn’t mean I deprive myself of treats! I just make sure I take care of my body and my mind.
And again, please see a doctor if your symptoms aren’t helped by things you can do. I am also on a regular anti-depressant that allows me to commit to these coping techniques! Stay well and good luck!