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Advice for Coping With Seasonal Depression, From 9 People Who Have It

Creative ways to maintain your mental health through winter

Allie Volpe
Dec 6, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

It’s December, and the darkness is officially here: In some parts of the country, daylight won’t last beyond 5 p.m. for the next month. It’s a depressing time for all but the most dedicated winter lovers, and for some people, the seasonal change can have real, concrete mental health consequences. Researchers estimate that roughly 6 percent of the U.S. population has seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a form of seasonal depression that typically hits during the darkest time of the year, beginning in fall and lasting through spring (though it is possible, but less likely, to experience SAD in summer). People with the condition have many of the common symptoms of depression: low energy, loss of interest in daily activities, increase or decrease in appetite, trouble concentrating, sleep issues.

To treat it, health care professionals usually recommend some combination of medication, psychotherapy, and light therapy, where patients bask in the beams of a light box. (Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, who was the first to formally describe SAD, in 1984, also advises surrounding yourself with as much natural light as possible while inside: “Take one room in your house and paint the walls and ceiling white for maximum reflectance of light,” he says. “Or find an indoor pool in a space that has large windows, which allow the sun to shine in and cast shimmering reflections on the surrounding walls.”) To make it through the winter, though, some people with SAD have found additional, more creative ways to combat their symptoms. Here, nine people with the condition share how they cope.

Get Outside

“Probably eight years ago, I started getting panicky in September that we were losing daylight and winter was on the way. I’m a very active cyclist, and riding outside in the daylight keeps me sane. Unless it’s brutally cold, I start every day with a one-to-two-mile dog walk. [I tell myself,] ‘You’re going to feel great once you’re outside!’ I also get on my mountain or road bike whenever possible.”

Patty Woodworth, 54, owner of Action Wheels bike shop, Mantua, New Jersey

“I started doing the opposite of hibernating. I basically use the fall and winter to train for a spring tennis league. Last year, I hiked across Utah in January. It’s hard to be depressed when you just hiked 15 miles. The year before, I did Mount LeConte in the Smoky Mountains. I start hitting the gym more, eating better, yoga. Just focusing on getting in shape and physical exertion takes my mind off the darkness. Then, in summer, I can sit in the air conditioning and play video games.”

William Bender, 38, journalist, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Take a Trip

“I [was] born and raised in Iceland, where we have daylight 24 hours in the summer and dark [for a] big part of the day in the wintertime. Some towns in Iceland don’t get sunlight in the wintertime because of the mountains that block the sun. Icelanders are known to go to other countries in the winter because they can’t handle the darkness. Usually, when we haven’t seen the sun for days, you can tell how the mood swings in people. We call it það er þungt yfir fólki, which means that people have a heavy cloud over them. Those who can’t afford [travel] find it useful to go to the gym, go out to meet people, or stay at home and light candles. When the sun shows her face in the wintertime, many use it to go outdoor swimming, skiing, hiking, or to take long walks, for example. Also we find it very useful to do some exercise, especially outdoors.”

Jóhanna Gudjonsdottir, 40, social worker, Reykjavík, Iceland

Care for Something

“Right before daylight saving time last year, I had budgeted to go to a fancy succulent store, and I ended up buying 15 plants — some hardy succulents, which are really difficult to kill, [and] cacti. I push them all up next to the door a couple days a week so they’re getting direct sunlight. I have a bunch next to my bed, I have a bunch on my coffee table, and I have a balcony. Other than my partner, they are the first thing I see when I wake up. I’ll take a weekend to make sure they’re watered and let them onto the balcony so they can get some sunlight and bring them back in. If I need to transfer them from one pot to another, I’ll do that. That’s a nice weekend activity where I feel like I’m connecting with nature.”

Ashlie Stevens, 25, journalist, Louisville, Kentucky

Find a Hobby (Or an Obsession)

“[One year] I got really obsessed with a particular musical, The Story of My Life. I went to see it a bunch of times, memorized a lot of the songs, read voraciously about the composers and the actors — and the intensity of my obsession propelled me through the winter, giving me something to feel excited about when my depression typically would’ve sapped me of the ability to feel pleasure about anything. In subsequent years, it’s taken different forms: One year, I was coaching a high school improv team, and I got really into planning the best possible exercises and practices for them and watching them compete in the Canadian Improv Games. Other years, I’ve cultivated crushes on swoon-worthy celebrities or gotten really into some hobby, like poetry or art. Most recently, I met my current partner last December, and the early days of us flirting and falling in love were so intense and heady that I almost didn’t notice my seasonal depression last year.”

Kate Sloan, 26, freelance writer, Toronto, Ontario

“Downtime started to become my enemy. When I had nothing going on, my mind would wander, and I needed something to keep me occupied, to help me get out of the rut SAD got me into. One day, I decided to start making Star Wars battle scenes that I made up [with miniature figures]. I found a couple Rebel and Stormtrooper army men at a hobby shop and started there. Over time, they’ve gotten more elaborate, and they have been something that I look forward to coming home to. If I’m having a rough couple days, I’ll go to the hobby shop and pick up new terrain or fake trees.”

Craig Lovatt, 25, cook, Toronto, Ontario

“Coming from the suburbs of New York City, nothing can really prepare you for a true winter in Michigan, where I spent four years in college. I spent a lot of time watching TV and experimenting with different ways to make ramen. As a music writer, I was extremely fortunate to be in a position where I was able to attend almost any show I wanted in exchange for coverage, so I started going to as many shows as possible. I found this method proved to be extremely helpful, as I was watching bands that I enjoy, forcing myself to be social, and finding new spaces that made me happy when the bone-chilling environment just wasn’t cutting it anymore.”

Zac Gelfand, 22, music journalist, New York City

Get Creative With Your Light Sources

I’m an acupuncturist and a hypnotherapist. I have the Celluma Pro, a light therapy machine that helps with cell regeneration. From the beauty perspective, it helps with cellular turnover, and you can use it on other body parts for pain. When people are doing the facial stuff, which is what I mostly use it for, [the light] curves—you can almost wrap it into a circle around their face. I started to realize that people with seasonal affective disorder were really seeing some good results from it, and I started using it myself. The light, it’s so radiant and bright, even when you’re wearing the goggles. Lying under that for half an hour, people started telling me, ‘I feel buzzed after using this.’ It’s got this effect of that euphoric feeling of when you’re in the sun all day long.”

Marisa Fanelli, 43, acupuncturist and hypnotherapist, Healing Point Therapeutics, Sudbury, Massachusetts

Create a Fun Ritual

“It’s extremely important to me to set the tone for the day. I have a five-minute daily ritual — I call it my morning five. Some days, it’s meditation, journaling, or turning on loud music and singing. I pick the one thing I want to do and allow myself to have fun. If I find myself spiraling out throughout the day, I can go back to what I did in the morning or pick something else.”

Contessa Louise, 45, wellness practitioner, northern Virginia

Allie Volpe

Written by

Writes about culture + lifestyle for The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Playboy, The Cut, and more.

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