Every year, as the days begin to get shorter and winter starts to set in, a familiar and unwelcome guest arrives in my life: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s a struggle I’ve faced for as long as I can remember and is a consistent part of my life when the seasons change. Some years are more manageable than others, but every year, I'm acutely aware that what I experience is far beyond the typical "winter blues."
The transition isn't subtle. As the sunlight diminishes and the cold sets in, so does a noticeable shift in my mood and energy levels. It's like a switch flips, and suddenly, everything becomes a bit grayer and a little bit heavier.
The impact of SAD on my daily life is significant—it's not just a fleeting sense of sadness or a temporary lull in energy. It's a total change in how I feel, think, and interact with the world around me. Sometimes it affects my work performance, and it often affects my relationships with my loved ones as I inevitably begin to turn inward and shut others out.
Learning to Cope:
My battle with SAD has taught me a lot about resilience and self-care. Over the years, I’ve tried various strategies and routines to help me cope with the symptoms. It’s a lot of trial and error, learning what works and what doesn’t, and adapting to each year’s unique challenges.
For example, I lost my stepdad to suicide in the winter of 2020, and that year was incredibly difficult to manage. The following year was tough, too, but I was marathon training and that required a lot of my time and energy, so my focus was shifted elsewhere. This year, my family and I are beginning to adjust to a new normal, and I’m finding this winter a little easier to get through than last year.
The key to managing my SAD has been awareness and preparation. Knowing that it’s coming and understanding that SAD is a physiological response, not a personal failing, lifts a huge weight off my shoulders.
What works for one person may not work for another, but here are some strategies that have helped me tremendously:
Consistent Sleep Schedule: A regular sleep routine is incredibly important for overall health and wellness. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day establishes a rhythm that my body and mind can rely on.
Light Therapy Lamp: My light therapy lamp has been a game changer! I bought one for the first time this year, and using it every morning for the past two months, I've noticed a significant positive shift in my mood and energy levels.
Mindful Consumption: I gave up alcohol 3.5 years ago and it was the best life decision I’ve ever made. My anxiety is lower, I don’t feel nearly as depressed as I did before, and overall life just seems better and easier to manage when difficult situations arise. I sometimes use cannabis to manage anxiety, but I find that reducing my consumption in the winter helps keep me from spending too much time being sedentary.
Running Through the Cold: Despite the chilly Midwest winters, I keep up with my running routine. It's more than just physical exercise; it's a mental release. The sense of accomplishment after a run, no matter the temperature outside, is an instant mood booster. If I’m not race training I’ll find a speed plan or maintenance plan so I can continue to work towards a goal.
Other things that help:
Getting out of the house every day, even if it's just a short walk, breaks the monotony and refreshes my mind.
I've found that daytime napping can trigger depressive episodes for me, so I avoid them to keep my mood balanced.
Checking in with my therapist on a regular basis helps me navigate the tougher days and keeps my mental health in check.
I work for myself, so establishing a consistent work schedule is crucial. It helps me avoid procrastination and the subsequent anxiety that can spiral into depression.
Whether it's following a running plan or just getting outside, movement is absolutely my biggest antidote to SAD. It's not just about staying fit; it's about lifting my spirits and feeling a sense of achievement.
I also try to shift my focus to gratitude and family time. Seeing my little guy experience the joy of the holidays is so uplifting, and his happiness is infectious! My Christian faith also plays a role; I find comfort in prayer and reflection during these shorter days.
Embracing Nature’s Pace
Finally, I've been reminding myself that it's natural for humans to slow down in winter. Acknowledging this helps alleviate the guilt of not being as active. It's okay to take it easy and listen to what your body and mind need during these darker months.
In our fast-paced world, there's a relentless push to always be 'on,’ to constantly achieve and produce. But nature itself teaches us a different lesson. Just as trees shed their leaves and animals hibernate, we also have our cycles of rest and renewal. One thing my therapist has told me that I try to always remember is “Never feel guilty for giving your body what it needs.”
This shift in mindset has been liberating for me. Instead of fighting against the natural slowdown that winter brings, I've learned to flow with it. I listen more intently to what my body and mind need, whether it’s more sleep, time with loved ones, or a nice long run.
In sharing my story, I hope to shed some light on the reality of SAD and the various ways we can combat it. Remember, it's about finding what works for you, and sometimes, the best approach is a combination of strategies.