The mornings are getting quiet. The birds aren’t chirping quite as much as they used to. It’s a bit colder out in the morning now. I’m sipping my coffee, journaling my observations.
The smell of pumpkin spice, apple cinnamon, spruce fir, they all smell so nice, but they suck me down into my seasonal depression.
Fall is a great time of year, but for those struggling with seasonal depression, it’s sometimes the beginning of the end. The first day of the time change, when it gets dark at 4:30pm, is when I feel like my life is stripped from me. I can’t feel happiness. I can’t smile. Hopelessness sets in. I just go through my routine monotonously and wait for spring.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (yes, literally SAD) is a mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs when there is less sunlight. It’s not just something made up because it’s cold and we can’t go outside — the lack of light affects circadian rhythms, serotonin levels, and melatonin levels. It is more diagnosed in women, and it’s seen more often in young adults rather than older. Family history and having a major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder make you more at risk, and if you live further from the equator, you’re more likely to develop SAD.
I have lived with seasonal depression my entire life, even when I was a child. It runs in my family, so I guess I thought everyone lived like this. But when I graduated college and moved to New York City, where it gets dark in the winter before I even leave the office, I started getting help for my seasonal depression. Here are some of the best tips I can give you for managing SAD and taking back the colder months.
1. Light therapy
When you don’t have natural light, store bought is fine. When I first did research on seasonal depression, I saw so many articles about “happy lights.” My doctor actually recommended it for me! I use Happy Light by Verilux. (Psst, it’s only $38 on Amazon!) I use it in the morning while I journal and drink tea. You can also use it in the evening when it gets dark, but try not to use it past 7:00 or so, because it’ll keep you up. Remember, we want to trick your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s still day.
2. Go for a walk
Colder weather doesn’t always sound enticing for a walk, but watching the leaves fall while sipping some cocoa can help improve your mood and boost your mental energy. Before it gets too cold to do so, enjoy the weather and the leaves changing. It will give you more hope for the next few months, for sure.
3. Avoid the scents for now
I used to think it was a cop out for me to avoid apple cinnamon scents. It makes me feel like a seasonal Scrooge. It’s like, when I smell cold weather smells, I first smell the joy of fall or winter, and then BAM, I smell the depression. I literally can smell depression, y’all. My therapist assured me that it’s not a cop out for me to avoid the smells for a while – it’s a coping mechanism. One day I’ll be able to smell pumpkin spice and evergreen and not have an aching in my soul. I don’t have to go crazy on fall and winter scents and decorations if it isn’t going to help my mental state.
4. Make new memories
I have to say, fall and winter are some of the most magical times of the year. Pumpkin patches, Christmas tree farms. Pies. Cookies. Take time to enjoy this season. Of course it’s going to feel worse if you’re only inside on your couch! Force yourself to go to the county fair. Be sad while pumpkin carving. Cry while wrapping presents. Maybe it won’t suck as much as you think it will.
5. Go to therapy
Ok, I’m always going to recommend therapy – any time of year. But going to therapy during your seasonal depression could be especially helpful to learning coping skills and strategies to getting your life back on track during these difficult months.
6. See a doctor
Not everyone needs to see a doctor for seasonal depression. It can be manageable with proper coping skills. Or maybe you just like being sad for a quarter of the year, idk. But if you do feel like you can’t do this alone, it’s perfectly normal to see a doctor. Psychiatrist or primary care, they will be able to assess what you need to combat the disorder. See your doctor and decide what’s right for you.
7. Consider medication
I know medication isn’t for everyone. Your doctor will also probably recommend exercise, light therapy, quality sleep, and adjusting your routine before medication. But if you and your doctor agree on medication, it can really help. My first year in New York City, my psychiatrist added Wellbutrin to my regimen for the winter. It helped tremendously, and I had my spring energy during the winter.
8. Sit in the suck
Look, sometimes coping strategies and new habits don’t always help. You’re going to have shitty days. When we have hard days, we just have to accept the sadness. It’s uncomfortable, but the more we allow discomfort, the more normal it becomes. We can’t have good days without bad. How would we be able to know how good the days are?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is an inconvenience for part of our year, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t have to be debilitating. There are so many at-home strategies, but reaching out for help won’t hurt either. As always, you are worthy of getting help. You don’t have to be in pain for an entire season. And you don’t have to do this alone.