More than Winter Blues
By Anna Reinalda | December 28, 2021
I was about 14 when I developed and learned about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
As a freshman at Princeton High School, I more or less stopped going to school somewhere around January. My attendance was sporadic and, since I lived just a few blocks away, I would often walk home before the end of the day, if I even got myself to school in the first place.
I just couldn’t see the use in school work anymore. Nothing sounded more grueling than eight hours of sitting in classrooms surrounded by my peers. I withdrew socially, spending most of my time alone in my room.
Mercifully, instead of punishing me for my sudden disregard for school and life, my mom put me in therapy, where, after some exploration, I was diagnosed with SAD.
Commonly called “seasonal depression,” SAD is exactly what it sounds like – depression that comes on suddenly around the same time every year, only to dissipate just as quickly.
Usually caused by the decrease in sunlight hours, SAD is a chemical response in the brain which is responsible for feelings of numbness, sadness, hopelessness, disinterest, mood swings, and in extreme cases, suicidal ideations.
While many people experience a bit of an energy slump in the winter, SAD is more severe than the average winter blues. In my case, it feels paralyzing. My executive function (the thing that allows you to fold your laundry or walk the dog or eat dinner) basically turns off. I become forgetful, angry, overwhelmed. I push away loved ones who only want to help me, and often scare them with my nihilistic attitude.
But after more than a decade of winters feeling like my very lungs have filled with ice water and that the world may actually stop existing, I’ve developed some coping mechanisms.
There is limited daylight this time of year, and I need as much of it as I can get. Maximizing my outdoor time means I’m not letting a single drop of that precious sunlight go to waste, and am capitalizing on the mood-stabilizing Vitamin D that comes from the sun.
Even when it’s cloudy, going outside has benefits. Studies have shown that exposure to natural landscapes and fresh air has a measurable impact on depression and anxiety, and more sunlight leaks through that cloud cover than you’d think.
They don’t call it a runner’s high for no reason. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which cause feelings of elation. I like to kill two birds with one stone by exercising outdoors. That way I get my nature fix and my endorphins all at once, like a super shot of goodness.
I won’t lie to you, though. Getting up to actually do the exercise is excruciatingly hard some days. Significantly harder than the workout itself. Lucky for me, my dog won’t stand for any rest days, but before I got him, tying my exercise time to an enthusiastic partner ensured that my worst SAD days didn’t get the best of me.
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You’ve probably seen those sunlight-emulating, super bright lamps that you’re supposed to sit in front of during the winter to increase your mood. While they probably work well for some people, it wasn’t a great option for me.
What does work really well for my routine is a wake-up light. My wonderful partner gifted me one earlier this year. It’s essentially an alarm clock, but it gradually emits a warm light as your alarm time approaches. By the time your alarm is actually sounding, it has reached full brightness.
The purpose of this is to mimic the sunrise, which helps your brain to start activating before you’re actually conscious. Waking up in the dark used to be one of my biggest struggles, and now it’s almost pleasant to wake up before sunrise, to a room filled with a warm, cozy glow.
When I’m in the midst of SAD, all my impulses tell me to stay home, curl up, and isolate. What a scam! Following these instincts makes me feel so much worse, and locks me into a vicious cycle that leads me to be less and less engaged with the world.
Organizing get-togethers with friends, finding out what events are happening around town, and throwing myself into the thick of it is the way to go. I find that I almost don’t have time to be depressed when I’m busy with healthy distractions.
Winter is objectively wonderful. There’s nothing inherent to winter that’s bad, except for my brain’s chemical response to it.
With beautiful winterberries in the woods, the smell of cozy fires wafting through the air, winter sports, and lots of delicious food, I could almost mistake winter for my favorite season.
By focusing on the things that are special about this time of year and making the most of them, I can trick myself into loving the season. Winter is such a short time of the year, and I want to make the most of it while it lasts.
One of my favorite things about SAD is that it is so reliably temporary. On my worst days, I can say to myself, “This isn’t forever,” knowing that I have proven myself right so many times before.
In moments like these, I like to bring up some of my happiest memories, as a reminder of how good I’ll be feeling in just a few short months.
As I get older, and continue to survive winters, my faith in the swift passage of time increases. I know that light is just around the corner.
While I spend a lot of time fighting the darkness that’s growing around and inside of me, it takes a lot of energy to keep battling all the time. Rest days are necessary.
Sometimes I invite my partner to participate in slump days with me, but often I prefer to be alone. Crawling into my cocoon to recharge often feels like a private matter. Alone or not, it’s incredibly important to set aside time to check in with myself, reconnect, and maybe have a good cry.
I heard once that the Dalai Lama makes a point of laughing and crying every single day, in an effort to fully experience life. I adopted this philosophy, and it allowed me permission to cry where formerly I had forbidden myself from it. Now, I revel in crying, and let the tears flow at least once a day. It’s cathartic, and a wonderful release.
A lot of these methods come down to being present in the moment. Often I walk out into the night, look up at the stars, and think what a gift it is to live in a world where there are stars. How lucky I am to be loved, and to love. How wonderful it is to feel emotions so deeply that they sometimes overtake me. As low as my deepest valleys may be, my peaks rise just as high. ■
The experiences described in this article are my own. I am not a doctor, and am not licensed to give medical or psychological advice. If you believe you need treatment for a mental health disorder, please consult with a professional. ■
The National Suicide Prevention Line can be reached by phone at 800.273.8255, or
text “HELP” to 741741.