I have a two-year journal in which I write a little about my activities and mood each day. It is set up in such a way that each page is divided in half with the left side for year one and the right side for the same day on year two.
Anecdotally, I have always known that the early winter months are challenging for my depression. While I haven’t had a serious episode for some time, it seems like I’m just not myself as the days become shorter and darker. It is interesting to see that the entries in my journal support this general feeling. Comparing my current entries to those I wrote at the same time last year, I clearly see the pattern through the words that are repeated: tired, sluggish, irritable. And in the things I do, or, more importantly, don’t do: limited socializing, skipping out on regular exercise, eating all the wrong things (and the weight gain that goes along with it). I often joke that I was meant to be a bear since this time of year makes me want to eat a season’s worth of food in one sitting and hibernate for the rest of the year.
I know I’m not the only one to feel this way. According to the Mayo Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to the seasons causing mood shifts and low energy1. It is formally diagnosed as depression with a seasonal pattern. While the science is still being researched around SAD, decreased exposure to sunlight seems to play a part through changes to circadian rhythms, serotonin levels, and/or melatonin which may impact sleep patterns and mood.
For someone like me who already lives with depression, this time of year can throw me off my otherwise relatively stable mental health game. I have found that it tends to dissipate on its own, usually within a couple of months, but I also now try to counteract the effects through some lifestyle changes as well. When I am at home, I try to make sure I have as many of the blinds and curtains open as possible to let in daylight. Even when (especially when) I’m feeling sluggish, I try to exercise by going for walks outside; having dogs makes this a little easier since they can be very persuasive when it comes to accomplishing this particular activity. I have also found that daily meditation, even just 10-15 minutes, puts me in a more relaxed frame of mind. I keep a daily log of three good things that happened each day and a gratitude list. Finally, I make sure that I socialize even when I don’t necessarily feel like it. It can be as simple as going out for a cup of coffee with a friend to have a chat and share a laugh.
I still think some days that I was meant to be a bear during this time of year, tucked snugly in my den living off the fat that I have accumulated by eating my weight in chocolate, snoozing away until the spring sunlight kisses my cheek and wakes me like a Disney princess. But then I realize that my depression has already taken too many days from me, and life is short. And so, I lace up my winter boots and do what I always have, take it one step at a time.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.