I have written here before about how winter often brings along Winter Blues. Even when I think I should be feeling fine, because my home and relationship are great, and the sun is shining and the beautiful mild place I live is being beautiful and mild, the winter months stretch forever. I sink into my personal combination of depression symptoms and every year I’m convinced I’m never going to feel normal again. I always do, but I always forget that I do.
After this last year of illness and recovery, my reserves are especially low. I’m struggling. A swift downward spiral hit me hard about a week before Christmas and I’ve been limping along ever since. In spite of California’s drought (which means endless sunshine in January), I’m still having a really rough winter.
It is really easy to beat myself up about feeling bad. What right do I have? My life is great! Being depressed is so selfish! What is WRONG with you? In fact, when I start hearing that refrain in my head, it is my first warning sign. That’s when I need to start paying attention so I don’t fall even deeper into depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, (often called winter blues, though for some people it hits in the summer) is an official disorder and described in the DSM. I’m seeing more and more people talking about how they deal with their own versions of winter blues, which I think is wonderful.
If this is something you struggle with too, here are some things that help me nourish myself deeply so I can keep an even keel until spring:
Winter is my molasses season. Have you ever tried to pour molasses out of the jar on a cold day? My thoughts move like that in the winter. My body moves like that in the winter. I need more sleep, more time to get from one place to another, more time to get from one thought to another.
So I go slow. And when I feel the need to go faster, I remind myself that there is plenty of time and just keep on going slow.
Going slow also means embracing the things that take time. I knit more in winter, and enjoy the process of one stitch after another sliding along my needles. I cook long-simmering stews and I bake bread. Slow can be cozy and wonderful.
Where in your life could you nourish yourself by going more slowly?
All that slowness takes time. So I give myself more time. I schedule fewer things. I go to bed earlier. I don’t try to do all the things (even though new things are jangling at me from every direction in January!). I don’t even think very hard about any goals for my life or business until at least February. I don’t take on new clients or projects. I keep our weekends unscheduled as much as possible.
In addition to making time, I give myself physical space, too. I recently read about a study that linked home clutter with depression. It goes both ways – clutter can increase stress hormones, which trigger depression, and when someone is struggling with depression, cleaning up their stuff feels overwhelming. Clutter in my home raises my anxiety. So I use my higher-energy moments to pick up one room at a time to keep it under control.
What can you edit to make yourself some extra time or space?
Exercise, fresh air and sunlight are all recommended to counter the effects of SAD. Get them all at once by stepping out your door and going for a walk outside. If your winter weather doesn’t allow that as easily as mine does and you need a lot of extra layers to get outside or you need to get your sunlight through a window (or from a light), try to get a little of each of these things every day. Even a tiny bit will help, I can attest.
Have you been outside today?
Watch What You Eat
When the weather is cold my body craves sugar. Sugar in the form of bread, starchy foods, and straight up sugar (Have you tried the almond biscotti from Trader Joes?). I also want to pour myself a glass of wine in the evening, or put some brandy in my last cup of tea in the evening. None of these things are helpful to my emotional state. Carbs make me bloated and foggy. Sugar gives me a brief high and then a deeper crash. Alcohol is a depressant and I know I don’t need any more of that. When I drink a cup of coffee in the late afternoon because I’m dragging, I sleep badly that night and am even more tired the next day. That’s a vicious cycle!
When it comes to eating in the winter, I have to override my first desire almost all the time and make a healthier choice. That means keeping healthier choices at hand and keeping the bad choices out of the house so I don’t have to depend on will power to overcome them.
I’m not advocating a January diet, a juice cleanse or anything else drastic. I’m just saying pay attention. If you eat that cookie and then you feel bad afterwords, don’t make it worse by beating yourself up about it. Just move on, and maybe skip buying the cookies next time so they aren’t tempting you.
What food makes you feel good that you could include in a meal today?
I am not a doctor and please do not take any medical advice from me without consulting with your doctor, but I have found that taking non-prescription supplements has helped me manage the symptoms of SAD. There are a number of supplements recommended for depression support (both with and without scientific evidence). What has helped me personally is an increased dose of Vitamin D in the winter, and in years when I’m especially struggling, a few weeks of St. John’s Wort. If you are already doing all the things I’ve suggested above and are still feeling really bad, talk to your doctor about what supplements make sense for you. And if you are feeling severely depressed or thinking about harming yourself, get help now! Prescription anti-depressants can be a life-saver.
The most important thing I do is listen deeply to my needs in this season, and in each moment. When I’m feeling off center I take a moment to check in with myself and ask, “What do I need right now?”
Often the first answer is something true but not necessarily useful (“I want a cookie! And I want someone else to be the mom!”). But if I keep listening, the true and useful will bubble up. Often it is simply that I need to take a break. I really want to sit down and read a few pages of a book. I want to color. I need a snack. Sometimes is is acknowledging that I’ve been really bad about getting enough sleep and I’m so very tired. So I promise myself an early bedtime. Sometimes it is setting aside the work I planned to do during my childcare hours and doing something that looks a lot more like radical self care instead. Sometimes it is throwing over the menu plan and texting the LHM to meet us for dinner at the neighborhood sushi joint so I don’t have to cook.