I used to hate Winter. I wished I could avoid it like the plague. The cold, the dark, the brown and gray of nature when everything had died for the season.
But some time in the past few years, I began to change my tune. My feelings about Winter began to evolve when I started practicing art regularly.
As an artist, I find so much joy in observing things; often simple, plain, and unexpected things. I found myself walking outside on cold winter days and curiously taking in the contrast of dried up twigs against the backdrop of the frozen lake. There was something extra special, like a secret no one else knew, about being the only one out there to see the simple beauty on a cold winter day.
While beginning an art practice may have been the catalyst that helped me better deal with my winter blues, there were many other things I’ve learned along the way. I know that animosity toward different times of year is common among many, and severe seasonal depression is a serious topic. In this blog, I want to share some of the research behind it, available treatments, and my own experience changing my relationship with the seasons. However, I am an artist and a nerd, and not a doctor or mental health professional, so if you are dealing with anxiety or depression of any kind, please seek the advice of licensed professionals.
What is Seasonal Depression?
As the seasons change, so do our moods. For many people, the transition from summer to fall, or from fall to winter, can bring on feelings of sadness, fatigue, and hopelessness. This is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and it’s more common than you might think. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, extreme SAD affects up to 5% of the population in the US. A much higher portion of the population is likely to experience a moderate degree of SAD or “winter blues” that isn’t diagnosed.
SAD is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons, typically starting in the fall and lasting through the winter. The exact causes of SAD are not fully understood, but it is thought to be related to the body’s natural circadian rhythms and its response to changes in daylight hours. This may cause a decrease in Vitamin D, from which the sun is the primary source. Symptoms of SAD can include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Loss of interest in activities
In addition to the commonly known seasonal depression that tends to occur in the Fall and Winter months and in areas where people live far north and south of the equator, a 2021 NY Times article shared that some people suffer from “summertime sadness,” a seasonal depression that tends to occur in the hot, humid, summer months. Compounding irritability and lethargy triggered by the temperature, airborne allergies can cause physiological changes that are connected to depression.
Researchers quoted in the article also shared concerns that there might not be enough data to actual identify seasonal patterns in depression, and that depression does not have a season. I believe mental health is certainly a complex subject with many variables, so it’s important to look for patterns and causes in our own lives, and understand our relationship and thought patterns with the world around us to better identify personal coping strategies.
What Are Some Coping Strategies for Seasonal Depression?
There are several strategies that can be effective in managing SAD. Here are a few of the most common, and I’ll share my experience with the tactics I’ve used.
Light therapy is a common treatment for SAD that simulates exposure to daylight. It involves sitting in front of a special light box that emits bright light for a certain amount of time each day. This can help regulate your body’s production of melatonin and serotonin, which can improve your mood and energy levels. While I haven’t used the light box method, it is on my short list for future winters. I have focused on getting outside for walks in hopes that the exposure to daylight would have a similar effect, and it has definitely helped my mood, but it could just be the exercise and fresh air!
Antidepressants are often used to treat SAD. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant that can help regulate your mood and energy levels during the winter months.
Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help you learn new ways of thinking and coping with your symptoms. A therapist can help you identify negative thought patterns and teach you techniques to help manage your mood. I have worked with a therapist for a few years and we have discussed certain times of year that impact me specifically. For me, it’s not just the weather, sunlight and changing temperatures, but memories and triggers of difficult past things that happened near certain holidays and times of years can set me off. Having that awareness for myself and working through it with a therapist has been extremely valuable to facing challenging seasons.
Making some lifestyle changes can also help alleviate symptoms of SAD. This may include regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress. Spending time outdoors and getting natural sunlight is also important for regulating your mood and energy levels. This has been absolutely key for me. I cannot stress the importance of prioritizing sleep, regular exercise, nutritious food and being outside. This supports all aspects of my life and helps me to feel my best. When I keep these things balanced, I have fewer bad days, no matter what time of year it is!
Embracing the Beauty of Each Season
While coping strategies are essential for managing SAD, it’s also important to find ways to embrace the beauty of each season. So many of us get in ruts of going through life without truly being present in our day to day lives. Modern living and technology keeps us both distracted, busy, and comfortable. We are easily agitated if things are too cold, too hot, too windy, rainy, icy, dry or humid. We often choose to just survive certain conditions we know that we will encounter seasonally, rather than accepting them as part of life and learning how to thrive within our environments.
I have learned through my art practice, meditation, and mindfulness over the last few years that accepting our current circumstances is one of the biggest keys to peace. And once we accept something as it is, it allows us to find creativity and inspiration to make the best of that situation. As long as we are resisting it, we remain closed to new possibilities.
When I accepted wintertime in Kansas City for what it was, the frustration and impatience with it softened, and I asked myself things like:
- How can I spend this time indoors in a way that fuels my body and soul?
- How can I prepare for outdoor time in a way that keeps me dry and warm but still able to enjoy the fresh air and simplified beauty?
- What does my body, mind, and soul need during this time of year?
Asking these questions helped me find ways to spend the winter days and nights in a way that feel aligned rather than resistant, and I’ve found the seasons fly by in a good way. In addition to asking yourself questions like those above if you are struggling through certain times of year, here are a few ideas for finding joy in every season:
“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with Spring.” – George Santayana
- Go on a walk or hike to enjoy the fresh blooms and scents of the season.
- Visit a botanical garden to see the wide range of flowers in bloom.
- Prepare your own yard and/or garden for landscaping or seasonal produce.
- Take a trip to a state or national park to enjoy the scenery and wildlife.
- Grab an umbrella or raincoat and walk in the rain.
- Let your hair down in the breeze and notice how alive you feel in the energy of the wind.
- Have coffee or tea outside in the morning before the sun heats things up
- Go on a beach vacation or enjoy water activities such as swimming, surfing, or kayaking.
- Go camping and spend some time looking up at the starry sky.
- Walk outside in the morning or evening to beat the heat while enjoying the sunrise or sunset
- Take a trip to an amusement park
- Attend an outdoor music festival.
- Spice up your coffee or tea with cinnamon
- Take a scenic drive or walk to enjoy the changing colors of the leaves.
- Go on a hayride or corn maze.
- Attend an art fair or other Fall festival
- Buy a cozy new blanket to keep you warm while relaxing inside or on the patio
- Add a firepit to your outdoor space to extend your time outside
- Go skiing, snowboarding, or ice skating.
- Visit an art gallery
- Build a snowman or have a snowball fight.
- Enjoy the holiday season by attending a holiday market or light display.
- Bundle up for crisp, peaceful walks outside
- Read books or start an indoor hobby like painting or knitting
- Slow down, and take time to truly rest
In addition to specific ideas to help you find joy in each time of year, here are some of my favorite approaches to maintaining mental health throughout all the seasons of life. When I incorporate the below practices, I am able to find moments of presence, joy, and fulfillment no matter what time of year it is.
Self-care is essential for managing mental health, not just seasonal depression. Take time to care for your body and mind. Whether it is movement, rest, nourishment, or pampering, it’s important to prioritize your self-care and make it a part of your daily routine.
Connecting with Others
Social isolation can worsen symptoms of seasonal depression. Even as an introvert, I know I feel better when I am able to connect with friends and family on a regular basis. Even if it’s just a phone call or video chat. For some, regular parties and gathering can provide much needed connection, and for others (like me!), one-on-one time is more effective.
Being Kind to Yourself
Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling down. Remember that seasonal depression is a real illness and that you are not alone. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend.
Engage With Nature in Each Season
Connecting with nature can have a positive impact on your mood and mental health. Make an effort to engage with nature in each season. This may include taking a walk in the park, going for a hike, or visiting a botanical garden. Try to notice the changes in nature as the seasons change, and appreciate the beauty around you. Nature is one of the greatest teachers in embracing change.
Make Time for Things You Love
Engage in activities that bring you joy and make you feel good. This may include reading, painting, cooking, or playing an instrument. Make time for the things you love, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. Doing something you enjoy can help boost your mood and give you a sense of purpose.
Take Steps to Deal With Stress
Stress can worsen symptoms of seasonal depression, and some stress is worsened by seasonal activities. Take steps to manage your stress, such as practicing mindfulness, setting boundaries, and learning relaxation techniques. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope with stress, as it can have a significant impact on your mental health.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation can be helpful for managing seasonal depression. These practices can help you stay present in the moment and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. A daily practice of mindfulness and meditation can help you find acceptance and presence in each season, rather than resisting the changes around you.
Journaling can be a helpful tool for managing seasonal depression along with all of life’s ups and downs. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process your emotions and gain a sense of clarity. Try journaling for a few minutes each day, and focus on the positive aspects of your life. Writing down what you are grateful for in each season can help shift your perspective and boost your mood.
Planning for the Change of Seasons
Plan ahead for the change of seasons. Instead of dreading colder weather, think about things to look forward to, like the changing of the leaves or a new hobby. Plan activities that you enjoy and that give you a sense of purpose. Having something to look forward to can help you feel more positive and energized.
As I bring this story to a close in mid-February, I consider how Spring is really just around the corner, and I am amazed how this winter has flown by. We’ve had illness and injury, work and holiday stress, but also plenty of walks outside, hearty soups and stews, rest, time in my art studio, and visits with family and friends. While I am looking forward to the inspiring fresh colors and opening up of Spring, I will miss the darkness of Winter that invites us to slow down and stay in. There is so much beauty and peace around us, if we are just open to it!