It’s that time of year. For those in the Pacific Northwest like myself, it’s that time when it feels like we haven’t seen the sun in months. The worst part of it is that it doesn’t just feel like it, we really haven’t. At least for any substantial amount of time. While not everywhere in the world experience winter quite like we do, seasonal depression, better known now as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is experienced across the globe. Seasonal depression treatments can be given best by a doctor, but as someone who has experienced SAD since I was a teenager, I want to share with you my experiences of how I have managed it over the years.
“Most scientists believe that the primary cause of SAD is diminished sunlight that accompanies the shorter days in the winter. For many people, reduced light triggers changes that reverberate throughout their bodies and minds, causing their moods to darken.”
– Laura L. Smith & Charles H. Elliott
Experiencing SAD for the first time
I was in my early teens and had recently moved abroad to Austria for boarding school. Previously, I had been living in Iran and before Iran, my entire life had been spent in Arizona. Despite the different kinds of heat in Arizona and Iran, I only really knew warm, sunny climates.
Adjusting to cold, dark days in Austria didn’t feel particularly difficult until we hit winter. Months dragged on and I slowly noticed my outlook on life start to diminish. I loved the school I was in. I had so much fun with my friends and I even had some family that lived not too far away. Despite all of that, I felt like a dark heavy cloud lived over me.
I don’t know if I would’ve been able to pinpoint it on my own. Thankfully, one day, Gloria, the owner of the school noticed that I was having a hard time waking up. She mentioned that I was sluggish, not my usually smiley self, and she questioned if I was feeling okay. She pointed out a rash that had recently developed on my face. It caught me off guard, and I told her I loved school and had never been happier. I was surrounded by new friends and was having new experiences every day. Casually, I mentioned that the weather made me want to sleep more. I explained that it was like being homesick, but I wasn’t homesick at all. I didn’t know how to describe the mild depressive symptoms I was experiencing.
Gloria said that she got little rashes on her hands and face as well and the grey days made her feel gloomy. She told me about a large bright lamp light that acted like the natural sunlight that she sat in every day. She said it helped her with the rash on her face and made her feel happier. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about when she started in with the infrared lights and what their purpose was. She advised me to come by each day to use the lamp to see if it would help. All I needed to know was that I could get out of class every single day for 30 minutes and sit under a lamp that she referred to as her “happy light”. Done! I wanted to take her up on her light therapy.
Needless to say, my rashes quickly cleared up on my face. Immediately, I didn’t notice if it made me feel in a happier mood, but I was just happy to be out of class for 30 minutes a day. As time went on, I did notice that I was more energetic and slept better.
After boarding school, I moved with my mom and sister to Torremolinos, Spain. Fragmented memories of my childhood abuse started to come back and it sent me over the edge when combined with the very short gloomy winter season. Despite the short season short, I found myself contemplating suicide and being so close to attempting it multiple times. As I worked through my dark thoughts, the season changed and the flip felt almost immediate. It was the first time that I felt like my body changed so quickly with the season.
A year later, after eventually returning to the Pacific Northwest, I began to take notes on how I felt with the gray sky vs. a sky beaming with the sun. As I connected the dots, I realized that I was greatly impacted by SAD and began trying to do everything I could to combat the notoriously long winters.
Seasonal Depression treatments
I want to preface this with an understanding of the word treatment. I aim to share things I have done over the years that have helped me manage SAD. They are treatments in the sense that I have more control over SAD now due to these techniques, but it is not an issue that has completely gone away.
Exercise – Exercise has always helped to lift my mood. I depend on moving my body in the winter months to help combat feeling unmotivated and lethargic.
Medication – You would think with all of the trauma I have walked through that I have needed endless medications to help me stay in a good mental state. The truth is the antidepressant that I take is solely for seasonal depression. It is so real and it is ok if medication is a route you and your doctor feel are best.
Time in nature – Forcing myself to get outdoors, even on rainy days, has helped me develop healthy sleeping patterns and improve my mood. There are endless studies that connect mental health with time spent outside. The hardest part is making the time to do it, but considering the benefits, this is non-negotiable for me.
Light therapy lamp – Gloria, my schoolmaster was ahead of the game with her light therapy. The great thing now is that there are endless versions of light therapy lamps, it’s hard to choose. My favorite lamp is Circadian Optics Light Therapy. I love it because it is powerful, adjustable and compact.
Therapy – I do check in every couple of months and sometimes monthly with a therapist as a preventative measure. She’s become a great resource and a neutral person to bounce evolving thoughts before they become issues.
Traveling to a warmer climate – Despite all of the techniques above. Sometimes there is nothing better than to beat the grey by getting away from it. We like to plan trips during this season specifically to warmer climates. While we are away, I try to soak up as much sun as possible (safely, of course) to hold me over until summer.
Living with SAD
I am not one to live by a diagnosis, but I have seen the effects of SAD on my life in many seasons. Because of that, I keep an eye out for the feelings associated with it, so that I can address it before it escalates. I have loved discussing with my naturopath non-medicated ways to manage it and also have gladly welcomed the prescription from my doctor to help me when I need it the most.
If you are struggling with what you may think might be seasonal depression, reach out to your doctor to discuss the best options for you, but also please feel free to try out some of the treatments above that I’ve found success with.