A Therapist’s Tips to Face a Time of Change
You may recall living with “the winter blues,” or watching a loved one experience deep sadness during the winter. Very often this case of winter depression, that improves when spring arrives, is actually a diagnosable form of depression registered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly called SAD), and it refers to a seasonal depression that typically effects people during the winter months.
People who live with SAD generally experience symptoms similar to depression, including fatigue (even with sufficient sleep), mood changes, loss of interest in activities, changes in appetite and consequent weight change (usually overeating and resultant weight gain), feelings of guilt and worthlessness, difficulty performing routine tasks and concentrating, and thoughts or attempts of self-harm or suicide. Symptoms can range in severity levels and should be assessed by an experienced mental health provider.
These symptoms typically begin during the late fall and throughout the winter months when the days are darker, shorter and colder and often improve when the weather becomes warmer and brighter. While many people do not recognize this as a diagnosable disorder and simply refer to it as “the winter blues,” it is important to realize that SAD is very real and impacts many people.
It is believed that SAD originates due to a biochemical reaction in the brain when the brain becomes aware of less sunlight and shorter days, which shifts our bodies’ internal clocks and throws us out of whack. SAD is more commonly experienced by women and people who live farther away from the equator (where winter daylight is shorter).
But fear not, as with other forms of depression, there are effective treatments available, including psychotherapy, light therapy and pharmacological medication, as well as daily practices that are helpful in managing the symptoms of SAD. Very often symptoms will be alleviated as the seasons change, but treatment can help people who are suffering experience relief more quickly.
There are also some changes you can make in your own life that can help ameliorate symptoms of SAD.
1. Establish boundaries: It is okay to say “no” to things you do not want to or feel you cannot do, and it is okay to let people know that you need space. It is not rude to be direct and it can make an enormous difference in the way you feel.
2. Take care of yourself: Eating wholesome, nutritious foods, sleeping an appropriate seven to eight hours, and getting exercise, preferably outdoors, will boost serotonin levels which can improve mood and improve symptoms of depression. Engaging in self-care is also very important. Choose some activities that you enjoy, for example walks in nature, yoga, getting a massage, reading, trying new recipes, lunch with a friend, etc, and try them out. Practicing self-care will help you feel refreshed while managing symptoms of SAD.
3. Laugh: It is impossible to think a negative thought and feel good, and you cannot control everything that happens in your environment or that happens to you. The only thing you can control is your reaction. When you are experiencing depression, it may be hard to find joy in life. But if you can spend time with people whose company you enjoy or hit the local theater to see the latest rom-com, you will find your mood will improve.
4. Remember that you are more than your depression: SAD is common, but please remember that you are not your depression. You are so much more than that. If you surround yourself with loved ones, you will not feel as alone. Spend time with people who love and support you, be gentle with yourself and with others, and ask that others be gentle with you. It is okay to experience sadness. It is nothing to be ashamed of. And it is okay to say “no” to an event that you do not want to go to.
5. Seek help: While talking about your feelings with loved ones can be helpful, if you believe you may be experiencing SAD or another form of depression, please seek help from a professional in the mental health and/or medical field. Do not be ashamed to ask for help. We have entered this field because we care about people and want to help. We are nonjudgmental and offer a safe space where you can process your feelings, understand yourself and your environment better, and make positive changes in your life. This may include talk therapy, light therapy, or pharmacological drugs if appropriate.
If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, please visit a medical and/or mental health professional for a proper evaluation. SAD can be treated, and you can experience relief. If you feel you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please do not wait to see a doctor. Call 911 for emergency help or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
About the author: Caroline H. Schiff (www.carolinehschiff.com) is a psychotherapist and licensed master social worker (LMSW) who practices in Westport.