Previously in this series.
I’m a sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’ve had depression off and on my entire life, and as I age, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has become a reoccurring problem. Over the years I’ve developed a number of strategies to deal with it. While last year was one of my worst years for SAD, this year has been good so far — mostly because I’ve implemented the strategies that follow.
First, know that I’m not a medical professional; I’m just a writer and journalist who happens to have Seasonal Affective Disorder, so please consult your doctor if you have any questions. Second, some of the suggestions outlined below involve money — I recognize that I have a certain amount of privilege to be able to afford some of these options. Whenever possible, I tried to suggest a cheaper option, too. Third, I live alone, am in my late thirties, and don’t have children, and these factors also influenced the tips I have to share.
I live in Edmonton, Alberta, a northern city with a metropolitan population of one million. We sit on the 53rd parallel, and have winters so long that residents often make jokes about living on Hoth. I spent two and a half years living in Vancouver, so I also know the pain of living in a dark, rainy climate. Unfortunately, many of the tips that I will offer will be more relevant to people who live in snowy conditions.
Half of fighting SAD is adopting the right mindset. You have to accept that Seasonal Affective Disorder is something that happens to you, and you have to go into the winter months on the offensive. I start planning my strategy months in advance.
1. Find a good doctor who can help you address SAD. I see a sleep therapist/psychiatrist who has proved invaluable, and I’ve also got a primary care physician. I’m on antidepressants, and my doctors and I adjust my medication specifically for the winter months. I’ve seen a cognitive behavioural therapist and engaged in talk therapy for depression, which I do recommend. Last year, I found a free depression skills group through the mental health clinic in my city.
2. Most people who live in northern climates should probably take a daily Vitamin D supplement. On the advice of my doctor, I take 5,000 IUD of Vitamin D each day. (Please ask your doctor before you do this.) I also take a Vitamin B pill, and an Omega 3 pill with high EPA, recommended by my doctor.
3. Buy a lightbox. These lightboxes can mimic outdoor light, which can cause chemical changes in the brain and boost mood. I bought my lightbox seven years ago. I start using it in September before the days even start getting shorter. I put it near my computer and keep it on for a while in the morning. I got my lightbox from Northern Light Technologies, which ships to Canada and the United States. It was $200, but I wrote it off on my taxes as a medical expense, and it’s been worth every single penny. The public library in Edmonton has lightboxes that can be used on-site.
4. Help your body adapt to winter. Remember to hydrate and moisturize. I drink lots of water and herbal tea. I use lip balms, lotions and creams. I’m not above sticking Vaseline up my nose to stave off nosebleeds. Friends swear by their humidifiers, but I’ve yet to try one. Do what you can to make your environment and your body feel more comfortable. This will help boost your mood.
5. Resist the urge to spend too much time in your bed or on the couch watching Netflix. Yes, it is okay to take to your bed now and then — it can be healthy to take a day off from the world once in a while, and I do it a few times a year. But if you succumb to the urge too often, it gets harder to get moving and deal with your life. You have to make sure that you’re not indulging yourself, and that you’re actually getting out of your house and getting things done.
6. Get the proper gear. It’s important to have good boots and a good coat and proper winter clothing. This will make it easier for you to go outside and actually enjoy leaving your house. Winterize your car, and get good snow tires if you live in an area where you will need them.
7. Exercise creates endorphins, which boosts your mood. I go to dance class twice a week, and yoga twice a week. My yoga classes are drop-in, but my dance classes are at a fixed time, and this is good because I can’t brush them off. Besides being a good source of physical activity, I’ve danced with the same women for many years, so dancing is also a social occasion for me. The ladies in my classes make me laugh, and I get an additional mood boost from going to my classes. (Some yoga studios have free or pay-what-you-can classes, which are often called “karma classes.”)
8. I find that meditation helps me feel more grounded. I was in an anxiety skills group last year and we did some mindfulness exercises that I found helpful. You can look for guided meditations on YouTube or free meditation podcasts on iTunes. Headspace offers a great app that will teach you how to meditate through a series of free 10-minute meditations. (They’ll want you to pay for advanced classes, but the first 10 sessions are free.)
9. Try to make sure that you have as much access to natural light as possible. Open your blinds. When you’re in a coffee shop or restaurant during the day, try to sit by a window. If you have the option, avoid living in a basement suite. I chose my apartment based on its natural light. I work from home, and my desk is beside a large window.
10. Get outside. I try to make myself feel more excited about winter by adopting winter sports — I cross-country ski and have skated in the past. Some of my friends snowshoe. Some stores or city recreation facilities have equipment that can be borrowed or rented. You could go tobogganing with the kids in your life, or just go for a walk. I try to go for a walk outside every day, especially when it is sunny out. If you work in an office, you might want to sneak out during your lunch hour and get some natural Vitamin D. My city also has lots of free winter festivals. All of these outdoor activities helps me get fresh air and natural light. It can also help change my mindset: during our most recent snowstorm, I started getting excited about cross-country ski trails instead of dwelling on how cold it was.
11. Watch your diet. When you’re feeling down, depressed or simply sluggish, it can be tempting to sit on the couch with a bag of chips and binge-watch TV. Trust me, I feel your pain. It’s really hard for me not to eat a lot of pasta during the winter months, so in order to combat this, I turn to soups and stews with lots of vegetables. My slow cooker is my friend. Once I’ve cooked something, I also feel better about having done something positive for myself. I eat lots of fruit and I tend to treat myself to sushi or salmon once a week, justifying it with the reason that fish is high in Omega-3.
12. Richard Louv, the author of “The Last Child in the Woods,” writes about nature deficit disorder and how people actually function better when they have access to green space. I try to have lots of plants in my house, so I can see some green year-round. This year I’m planning to go visit my local conservatory, especially the tropical pavilion. My hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has a free conservatory in its art gallery, and I used to love to sit there and pretend I was in the tropics. The West Edmonton Mall (famed for being one of the largest malls in North America) has a large indoor wave pool that mimics a tropical beach. This year, plan to go there and pretend I’m in another part of the world.
13. Nothing can make you feel lower than spending too much time alone. You need to make plans with friends, and get out of your house. Of course you’ll want to stay home when there’s a blizzard or the roads are bad, but you should make plans to go out and do something social at least once a week. It will make a huge difference to your mood. Make plans and keep them. Invite people to visit you. Volunteering for local festivals or organizations can also get you out of your house and make you feel as though you’re making a difference.
14. Find things to get excited about. I’m a huge movie watcher, so I follow all the Oscar buzz. I know it’s frivolous, but it’s something fluffy to keep my mind occupied. I try to get out and go see movies whenever I can. Make time for things that you like to do, that interest you and make you feel good. Create some anticipation, and have fun.
15. Try not to whine about winter too much. Yes, it’s terrible and it feels like it will never end. Every northern resident has done some whining. But if you whine too much, it will actually influence your mood and cause you to feel worse. Resist posting negative status updates about winter on social media. (Please note that this is different from talking to a good friend, family member or therapist about your low mood — talk therapy and talking with people you trust about how you feel is good; whining about winter is not.)
16. If you can do it, consider taking a winter vacation to a sunny destination. We took a winter vacation last year for the first time, and it helped so much that my boyfriend and I decided to do it again this year. We started planning our winter vacation in August. We found a killer seat sale in October, and are already anticipating our trip to Palm Springs in February.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a nasty beast that can sneak up on you. I hope that some of these tips help you as they’ve helped me. I still struggle during the winter, but with these strategies I’ve outlined, I now have a few tools that help me keep the SAD demons away.