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How I Cope with Seasonal Depression at the Holidays

And what I do to prepare for the season

Trigger warning: This post focuses on seasonal depression, anxiety, and discusses suicide ideation. If this isn’t something that helps you at this time, feel free to bypass reading and take care of yourself. 

My first experience with seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder, was in college. I attended a school in Ohio, but had grown up in Georgia and Tennessee my whole life. Sure, I had seen snow before, but in a way that inspired emergency alerts from meteorologists and panic in supermarkets. I hadn’t experienced harsh winters, inches of snow, and temperatures below freezing for consecutive weeks and months at a time. By the time I was 18, and living in a town where the sun disappeared for months, I began to experience a blistering cold depression. As an out-of-state student, I had already been battling a heavy bout of homesickness, but the winter cold washed out any sense of purpose I had been clinging to. Any intrinsic motivation to take care of myself vanished with the sun and warm temperatures.

I recall being in a freshman orientation class when I learned about SAD. The instructors of the class explained why many of us, especially those from out-of-state, may be feeling particularly legarthic, depressed, or moody. We learned that the early on set of SAD happens during early adulthood. They equipped us with practical exercises to overcome the effects of SAD and encouraged us to buy lamps and plants. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t alone despite the overwhelming sense of isolation. In fact, about 5% of Americans battle SAD, and it primarily affects women. Although, it did feel like a poorly dealt hand in the game of life. So, I’m always going to feel this way around the holidays? Despite my feelings of sadness, I was overall grateful that I had a word I could google and resources at my disposal. I was elated that the instructors were having an open dialogue about mental health within the classroom.

For some, SAD emerges as a depressive state, low energy, and a loss of interest in otherwise favorite pastimes. Most years, SAD affected me through suicide ideation, withdrawing from others, and constantly being agitated or anxious. It’s as though my naturally sunny disposition goes into hibernation, and I’m running on a half-tank of gas through winter.

For me, SAD showed itself like a heavy weight. Even today, I struggle with the physical pressure of SAD. The best way I can describe it is like asking someone to walk around with an extra 50 pounds at their side. It’s not impossible, but it makes nearly everything — getting dressed, small talk, and getting out of bed — all the more difficult. When I am not careful or conscious, I cope with the pain through binge-eating and countless hours of sleep. 

While SAD isn’t something I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid completely over the last decade, it is something I’ve learned to cope with and temper to the point that I’m able to live a good life during winter. Here is how I prepare myself for the season to ensure I’m prioritizing and tending to my mental health.

I prepare myself and my loved ones for its arrival.

Around October, I begin to think about how I want to cope with my impending seasonal depression. In this season of life, I sit with my husband, and we discuss what triggers could make my SAD worse and how he can support me best.

Though seemingly ominous, I don’t allow wishful thinking (“Maybe I won’t get seasonal depression this year”). I understand the power of positive thinking; I’ve also endured the consequences of not preparing for SAD.

I create a plan with my therapist.

I am fortunate to have a personal support system and a professional one. I’ve been going to therapy on and off for 11 years. My current therapist and I have been working together for nearly a year. A great exercise she’s taught me is to have a well-documented coping plan for hard days.

My coping plans evolved with me and the demands of life I faced at that time. Currently, my plan involves a succession of movements and exercises to keep my focus in the present moment.

Here is my SAD 2021 plan*:

  • Ten minutes of butterfly taps to feel grounded and in the present moment.
  • A 10-minute walk around the block with our dog to get my blood flowing. (And also — dogs!)
  • Ten minutes of no screens. Typically, I’ll clean the dishes during this time.
  • A phone call to my husband or friend to chat and/or ask for support.
  • A 10-minute shower to escape life momentarily and ensure I’m getting out of bed in the process.

*This plan was developed with my licensed therapist based on my individual needs and goals. Please do not use this as a guide for yourself, and speak with a doctor to develop a plan best for you.

I fill our apartment with plants and nature-mimicking lighting.

Our home is always filled with plants and greenery; however, I ensure that we bring our outdoor plants inside right as temperatures begin to drop. Not only is it good for the green babies, but the calming hues of artichoke, mint, and forest green help center my mind and alleviate my anxiety and aggression.

According to Ambius, “Plants have all kinds of fantastic benefits. They do things like help lower blood pressure, increase people’s attentiveness, increase energy levels and improve the overall perception of whatever space you’re in. All of that can help when the days are dark by the time late afternoon comes around. By improving the atmosphere inside your home during the winter months, when you are forced to stay inside more often, you can improve your mood; feel more energetic and less depressed.”

I take time off.

I am a recovering workaholic. For me, working has been a vehicle to prove my self-worth and competence. I performed for others because the positive feedback proved to be a dopamine rush for my nervous system. One major step in my recovery is carving out time off and honoring the commitment I’ve made to myself.

As a solo entrepreneur, I’ve planned for a winter break this holiday season where I don’t take on any client work. By having a break from work, I’m able to prioritize my mental health and learn how to have rest in my life.

I occupy my time with loved ones out of the house.

When I experience states of depression or a sense of lost control, my natural reaction is to withdraw and isolate myself. But time and experience have taught me that it never helps; usually, it hurts me and those around me.

To remedy this, I make plans with loved ones that require me to take a shower, drive somewhere, and bond with people. Truthfully, there are times I want to cancel. And as a self-compromise, I’ll invite the friend to my house. But often, when I repeat, “You won’t regret bonding with someone who loves you,” to myself as I get ready, I honor the commitment to myself and my friend.

I indulge my five senses.

A grounding tool that has helped immensely in all areas of wellness, self-care, and mental health in a five senses mindfulness meditation. At its most basic, the exercise is a chance to bring awareness to your sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing. For example, you could list one thing you see in your line of vision, one thing you can smell at that very moment, one thing you can touch, etc.

During the holiday season, I try to stretch this in otherwise ordinary activities. I challenge myself to bake with cloves, cinnamon, and unique spices. I’ll put on jazz music or bands from the 90s as palette cleansers from all of the Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande that my ears are used to hearing. I bring out heavier, weighted blankets, and fuzzy socks. The mission is to shake up my nervous system and introduce novelty where I can.

I lay off alcohol for the season.

This past year, I’ve dabbled with the sober-curious lifestyle for reasons related to wellness, health, and choosing self-acceptance over self-sabotage. Even in the years I wasn’t living a cleaner lifestyle, I was still choosing to lay off the sauce during depressive states.

According to multiple sources, including Clearview Treatment Programs, “Alcohol has a sedative effect on your brain. While a few beers or glasses of wine can seem to relieve stress and make you feel more relaxed and calm, they can actually put you at an increased risk of depression. Alcohol is a depressant that can cause your problems to seem worse than they actually are and can make you feel even more depressed than before you had a drink.” For the holiday dinners, I do choose to pair a meal with red wine, I make sure to drink in the company of others – never alone — and hydrate in between sips.

I sign out of social media.

It’s no secret that social media has had a negative impact on the mental health of millions. When I’m surviving a season of SAD, social media isn’t the cause, but it certainly isn’t the cure. It plays the part of gasoline and can set fire to intrusive thoughts or feelings of hopelessness.

I recently logged out of my personal Instagram for the upcoming season, and it’s been a healthy decision. I’m not bombarded with photos, FOMO, or a feeling that I’m not living my best life every single day of the week. Being away from social media allows me to process my emotions and feelings in a divorced way of artificial influence and a false sense of connection.

I make new traditions each year.

One year, when my SAD was particularly devastating, my husband and I came up with the idea for the 25 Days of Christmas. Each day in December, we did one thing that brought us holiday cheer. Sometimes, it was eating at a local diner we loved. Other days, we made mocktails at home and watched a holiday movie. The point was to get out of our routines and out of our heads. And it’s a tradition we do each year now!

I make plans for the future.

Admittedly, I can be a bit too future-orientated at times. But to stay hopeful, planning exciting vacations and nights out is a small way I can do that. During the winter months, just thinking about the following year can warm our spirit. I’m left buzzing with anticipation and dazzled by the prospect of what’s to come.

I recently made my 2022 vision board, and I have a trip to Italy, taking dance classes with friends, and watching movies in bed on the agenda.

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