How to Cope with Seasonal Depression This Winter

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seasonal depression

During one of my therapy sessions earlier this fall, my therapist explained that she was having a talk with many of her clients about seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Because SAD can affect anyone, she wanted her clients to be aware of the symptoms and wanted to help me (and all her patients) be as proactive as possible in taking care of our mental health. 

While it can seem easy for some to dismiss the idea of the weather and seasons affecting mental health as “winter blues,” seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or “seasonal depression” is a type of depression related to the change in seasons. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people with SAD start to experience and show symptoms around the fall and continue to be affected well into the winter months, but there are cases where some experience depression in the spring and early summer.

Curious about the impact of the holidays and the ongoing pandemic on SAD, I reached out to Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor Dr. Kevon Owen.

Meet the expert
Dr. Kevon Owen, DCoun, LPC, LPC-S, CC
Dr. Kevon Owen is a licensed clinical professional counselor with experience in inpatient and outpatient care.

How do you know if you have seasonal affective disorder?

For many of us experiencing symptoms of SAD, the holidays generally can be a more difficult time of the year, which is why it is important to find favorite effective coping mechanisms and implement them. 

Some signs and symptoms of SAD include

  • Losing interest in activities you preciously loved
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Irritability or sluggishness
  • Feeling hopeless

I asked Dr. Owen if he had seen an uptick in seasonal depression this year, and he had a lot to say. “I’m not sure if there has been an uptick in seasonal depression or if people are more aware of their mental health and thus we are seeing an increase. People seem to be more likely to seek help. Compounding issues like anxiety around pandemics and life stressors and seasonal depression is helping individuals to not just write it off or pass as just feeling melancholic,” he said.

 

seasonal depression

Source: KML | Pexels

 

What are some ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder?

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of SAD, it is important to seek a licensed mental health professional or medical professional first. While the holidays seem like a time where families come together, they can also feel quite isolating for those of us experiencing seasonal depression. Here are some ways to cope.

 

Don’t neglect your self-care

“Remember the cold and dark and how that hinders people from doing things? Usually, those things are what people would classify as their self-care or positive coping,” Dr. Owen said. “Self-care is so often the answer for moms for so many things. You cannot continue to pour out energy and care if you don’t put some in,” he said.

 

Seek out (or continue) medical treatment from a doctor or mental health professional

If it’s about more than coping, Dr. Owen suggested therapy can help with holiday-based sadness. If the symptoms become more intense or frequent, it’s important to seek additional professional help. 

Continuing (or starting) therapy and taking your prescribed medications should be a start, but as many of us who struggle with mental health know, it takes more than that to help us get to a healthy place.

Mental health treatment can often be complex as your doctor, therapist, and team help find a medication or treatment plan that works for you. Try to trust the process and give yourself grace as you all work together to find what helps you the best, and most importantly, be honest with your care team. If you find a medication isn’t working the way you think it should, discuss it with your doctor. If you and your therapist are not clicking anymore, seek out one who is more suited to your needs. 

 

Try light therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a treatment where you sit close to a special light box within the first hour of waking up every day. According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and seems to cause a change in brain chemicals that are linked to mood. 

“I would recommend light therapy to individuals who would be able to allow light therapy to work. Some of the more showy treatments get rejected by clients who write it off as lame or weird,” Dr. Owen said. “However, we know that the lack of light is a major contributor to the symptoms of seasonal depression … There is a lot of research that suggests that light therapy is effective for seasonal depression.”

When my therapist recommended I try light therapy, I was a little skeptical of how effective a literal light would be, like Dr. Owen mentioned. Since the side effects were far less than medications, I figured it was worth a try. It seems to be helping a bit—I am not as sluggish as I usually am in the fall. As a bonus, this can also make a wonderful gift for friends and family during the holidays as well. 

Target

LED UV Free Happy Light

This small light therapy light includes three settings and can be mounted.

Amazon

Light Box

This LED therapy light is glare-free and includes two light settings.

However, a word of caution if you have bipolar disorder: Be sure to speak to a doctor before using light therapy, as there is a risk that it could potentially trigger a manic episode.

 

Seek out social support

Having a strong support network is one of the best ways to combat mental health struggles. While colder, snowier weather (not to mention pandemic safety concerns) can make meet-ups in person more challenging, the holidays are a great reminder to cherish loved ones and celebrate with one another. Here are a few easy ways to connect with loved ones in the winter.

  • Host a bake off or cook off
  • Plan a low-key dinner with family or friends
  • Go sledding
  • Start a snowball fight or a snowman build with the neighbors
  • Have a pink or white elephant gift party
  • Take an evening stroll or drive with hot cocoa to-go and look at the Christmas lights

“In cases where connection is not an option, go for metaconnection: Zooms and Facetimes. We know that it is not as good as true connection, but it’s way better than being alone. Interest groups, church groups, hobby groups, etc. also offer connection options. Go connect if you can. It will help,” Dr. Owen said.

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