Many people find it hard to get going on a gloomy day. The covers feel extra cozy and that cup of hot coffee or tea, extra warm and inviting. The urge to stay in your pajamas and curl up indoors beckons you.
You may notice the weather can influence your mood. You might feel more tired or even down and blue. It might be hard to motivate yourself to get much done. Feeling subdued is nothing to concern yourself with if it happens for a day or two. Relax and put your feet up (as much as your schedule allows) and give yourself permission to chill out and indulge. The key is to soak up the laziness and enjoy, without shirking your responsibilities or feeling pulled farther and farther into hibernation.
This may be easier said than done. For some, seasonal depression is an experience that lasts all winter long.
What is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal Depression is sometimes called “the winter blues” and psychologists give it the more formal title of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is a set of depressive symptoms that occur with a seasonal pattern, typically emerging in the Fall, when the weather gets colder, and remitting in the Spring, with the more frequent sunshine. Occasionally, people experience the opposite, with symptoms during Spring and Summer.
Typical symptoms include having low energy, feeling tired, sad and sluggish, losing interest in activities, difficulty concentrating, and sleep/appetite changes. Additionally, with seasonal depression, you may experience irritability, agitation, anxiety, hypersensitivity, and conflict in getting along with others. Frequently, symptoms start out mild and can become more severe.
What causes Seasonal Depression?
A major cause of seasonally-based depression is biology. Your biological clock (or circadian rhythm) may be partly to blame. Changing patterns of sunlight and less daylight affect your biological clock. Reduced sunlight can also cause decreases in serotonin, a neurotransmitter (chemical in the brain) which affects and regulates mood. Finally, the body’s balance of melatonin may be disrupted, which also affects mood and sleep.
Another cause of seasonal depression is vulnerability factors. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), vulnerability factors are described as circumstances that make you more vulnerable to experiencing intense, unpleasant emotions. These factors may include environmental stress, a diet that isn’t supporting your needs, sleep irregularities (lack of or too much sleep), lack of exercise (or too much or the wrong kind for you), and physical illness. During Winter, as the weather and winter colds and flu make you feel tired, worn down, and depressed, you may become even more vulnerable, less equipped to handle stressors and feel greater amounts of unpleasant emotions more frequently. When vulnerability factors are high, intense emotions can follow, making you even more vulnerable.
How to prevent Seasonal Depression?
A gold-standard and evidence-based treatment (research shows it works) for any cause of depression is called Behavioral Activation. In short, this means that as soon as you suspect depression may be on its way (or has arrived), you make a plan to get active. In DBT, this is called Opposite Action.
Specifically, identify all of the depressive behaviors you might want to engage in (e.g., call in sick to work, stay in all weekend without socializing, watch more television). Then, identify their opposites (e.g., show up early to work, make plans ahead of time with friends and keep them, have your shoes and jacket by the door ready to go for a walk after work). Next, get busy doing the opposite behaviors that you feel like doing when you are depressed.
The key is to be clear and specific about what Opposite Action you are going to take (make plans with Joe to see a movie on Sunday afternoon, not vaguely: make plans this weekend), and then throw yourself in all-the-way. Don’t expect it to be easy. Combating depression is exactly that, combat. And, do not be discouraged. It is a battle you can win with persistence and encouragement.
When engaging in Opposite Action, do not suppress how you are feeling or your desire to stay home and put your head under the covers. Instead, allow yourself to feel how you feel AND, at the same time, throw yourself all-the-way into the Opposite Action you have identified and let the skill do the work. (Do not wait until you feel like doing Opposite Action. That day may never come, and it allows Depression to take even more of a hold.) Then, do it again and again until you have gone through your list of Opposite Action tasks and Depression has been sent on his not-so-merry way. If you find it hard to get started, pick one very small step you can take, and take it! Last (and definitely not least), remember to reinforce yourself for taking each step. Reinforcement is a powerful change agent. The more you use it immediately after engaging in desired behaviors, the easier those behaviors will become.
Another way to prevent seasonal depression is by managing your vulnerability factors. Identify what is making you more vulnerable to intense, unpleasant emotions. Although this step may seem obvious, we often do not realize the number of stressors present until we say it out loud to someone else or give it some intentional thought. Once you’ve identified your vulnerability factors (e.g., not sleeping well, feeling under the weather, nutrition has been off the past week), you can brainstorm some ways to attend to them and give yourself really good cold-weather care. For example, if you know that you need extra sleep during the winter and without it, you become quite irritable, see if you can brainstorm some ways to get even just a little bit more sleep each night. Your body and emotions will thank you.
Other treatments for seasonally-based depression address the physical causes. To help combat decreases in natural light, you might use Light Therapy. This works with specially designed light therapy boxes, and research shows it can help. Some people also elect to try vitamins and supplements (in consultation with their health provider) as an alternative to psychotropic medications, such as anti-depressants.
If you have noticed that your mood shifts as the season changes, you may find it helpful to seek out therapeutic support in learning to manage it. Therapists can teach you how to send depression into remission, and then prevent or drastically reduce the likelihood of a relapse. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is one helpful approach. DBT offers techniques to help you identify your unique vulnerability factors, engage in self-care to reduce and manage them, and notice earlier when they may be affecting you so that you can take steps to mitigate depression. If you think DBT may help you, contact a qualified therapist and start shifting from surviving to thriving today!