The Fall Edit: Navigating Seasonal Depression
For some, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. We’ve been patiently waiting on the edge of our seats since mid-August when Home Depot rolled out their Halloween decorations. The anticipation of fall weather, the slew of heavy-hitting holidays, the countless excuses to consume creative forms of sugary carbs at every turn, the invasion of busyness, what have you.
For others of us, this season is painfully sad—even frightful. The days get shorter, precious sunlight is snuffed out hours earlier, physical energy is drained, and loneliness rolls in like dark, bulbous clouds before a hurricane.
I have definitely experienced more of the latter. Seasonal depression is slang for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD…aptly). It’s not “depression light,” and it shouldn’t be dumbed down to the “winter blues” either. It is a subtype or specific kind of major depression that is symptomatic with the changing seasons, especially fall and winter months.
There is so much pressure to be “merry and bright” leading up to the holidays, which can really leave those of us that are seasonally challenged feeling misunderstood if not pissed off.
I remember years when all I could think about was surviving the weeks and months of cold and dark—Thanksgiving and Christmas were simply another reminder that I felt so alone and afraid. Afraid of what? Perhaps that there was something wrong with me or it would always be this way. Or maybe I was scared of being untethered and insecure in life. Whatever the reason, I just wanted to get through it all and land safely on the other side when the days would contract even just a minute or two each day.
I’ve been pretty open about my experience with depression along the way, so you might guess that those of us who deal with major depression also deal with SAD. This can be true, but doesn’t have to be. Similar to Postpartum depression, existing depression doesn’t always set the stage. Oftentimes, they do go hand in hand.
It was always so helpful for me to know that I wasn’t alone in my struggle with SAD, or ongoing depression for that matter. That said, I want to open up the dialog here today and cut through all the fluffy expectations we fall prey to around this time of year, as well as drop some helpful ways to readjust and navigate the season a bit differently.
If you experience a noticeable shift in mood, physical activity, patience for people, energy level, sleep, and desire to participate, keep reading. If you are a human being with a heartbeat, keep reading; I have a hunch someone in your life needs your grace and support because they suffer from SAD.
There are obvious and not so obvious reasons for SAD. The ones we all agree on are simple though: with less exposure to sunlight during the fall and winter months, our internal clock can often get pummeled, leaving depleted levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that helps govern and boost our mood, and melatonin, that gorgeous sleep stuff.
I’m hugely light sensitive. Visualize that bratty kid who screams at the top of her lungs when she stubs her big toe. Yep, that’s about my pain tolerance to diminishing light. Even walking into a dark house at the end of the day can viscerally affect my mood. Windows are my best friend. I’m a total extrovert when it comes to windows—the more, the merrier.
So, when the world goes dark around 4:30 pm, you better believe I’ve learned to emotionally rearrange my experience after 38 years.
Here are some helpful tools I’ve come to rely on in the dim days ahead:
Structure is the sensitive soul’s best friend. Oh, how I’ve come to love structure. For me, this looks like intentionally planning out my days from week to week. In the fall and winter months, it looks like starting a bit earlier so I can enjoy more sunlight, even just 30 minutes.
When emotions whip us around, taking their throne in the driver seat of life, it can be so easy to slip into the victim mentality, feeling powerless. Having a set structure, or routine for our days helps us reclaim the steering wheel.
My morning ritual is everything to me. It allows me time and space to practice the things that ground me like meditation, writing, and reading. In the coming days and months, experiment by putting some new structures into place to facilitate a more ordered interior landscape.
Exercise has officially become my antidepressant of choice throughout my lifetime. Hear me out, antidepressants can be a very helpful piece of the emotional puzzle. Exercise isn’t a replacement for medication when that is needed, and I’ve relied on it before. However, exercise is one of the most effective and proven ways at improving overall mood and stress levels there is. Getting a good sweat also helps us sleep more soundly.
It’s tempting to let workouts trail off around the holidays, but I say we fight for them. Make it a daily routine, like brushing your teeth. We owe it to ourselves. Procrastinate that leftover apple crumb cake; it will still be there on the other side.
I get it. When depression sneaks in, we often lose desire for the things we typically love to do. We want to isolate, sleep, numb. It’s so much easier, right?
Couple this with the fact that these coming months are like an open invitation to indulge whether that be with food, booze, online shopping, social media, you name it. There may be a temporary relief to our pain. However, we're also numbing positive emotions as well. Happiness, excitement, and gratitude are harder to come by, and we get thrown right back into the tangled thicket of depression once again.
So rather than numb, reach out. This time of year can indeed be a wonderful time of year when we reach out for the support we need. Identify “safe people” who know and accept you where you are. Make a list of two or three and reach out to them and let them know your struggle with SAD.
If you don’t have said 2-3 people, a good place to start is therapy. I can count several times I relied heavily on my therapist for support during these crucial months when all of the “stuff” listed above seemed impossible. There is absolutely no shame in seeking professional help. It is a courageous act of self-compassion.
I’m here for you on this journey. Again, you’re not alone. This is all part of learning to trust the process, even when hope feels distant and the light grows dim.
There is a bold light within you; this may be the perfect opportunity to find its glow.
Love & Gratitude,