Winter carries a mixed reputation: a mash-up of vacations, family interactions, and cultural traditions–as well as an extra burden on many with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. The shorter periods of daylight and associated circadian rhythm disruption are known to exacerbate the symptoms of depression for many–but there are also other factors at play. Consider the following tips to increase your resilience, if your mood is vulnerable to the shifting of the seasons.
Know your routines, and live by them. There’s a whole form of therapy devoted entirely to enforcing routines and understanding their interconnected nature with moods and relationships. Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) principles maintain that steady routines decrease exacerbations of depressive symptoms for people with depression and bipolar disorder. Try to keep yourself and your family on a similar schedule, even when you don’t have work or school–especially in regards to sleep.
Schedule some realistic self-care. One of the biggest problems with the self-care movement of today is the unrealistic focus on bubble baths and pedicures. Want a better way to take care of your body? Mindfulness practice is a great place to start–you can do yoga or even a meditation app in the comfort of your own home. (We like Headspace and Youper, both of which are available for free.) At the very least, make sure you are getting enough sleep, and only use alcohol sparingly. While it may be tempting to consume alcohol to warm you up while it’s cold outside, the negative impact on your sleep and health simply isn’t worth it.
Prioritize mindful eating. One of the hallmarks of seasonal depression is over-eating, especially of carbohydrates. Holiday feasts focus on comfort foods–high-fat, high-carbohydrate nutrient values, and oversized portions. Try to incorporate mindful eating, a process of checking in with your body, noticing how eating certain things makes your body feel, and stopping when you don’t need to eat anymore. Instead of avoiding nostalgic dishes, focus on managing the amount of each dish that you eat. Eating can still bring a lot of pleasure–but try to focus on the fresher fruits, vegetables, and less processed sources of protein and grains. Meal planning is an extension of mindful eating because prepared healthy options in your home make taking care of your body even easier.
Find a fall-friendly outdoor activity, as an alternative to your summer standby. It’s easier to keep up with an exercise routine when it’s warm outside, but the cold weather puts a severe damper on many enjoyable activities. Our bodies function better when we spend more time outside, and our moods are no different. In the fall, simple hikes or even spending time around a bonfire aren’t intimidating for most. Yard work is a practical and cost-effective alternative, as well. In areas with extreme cold or snow, activities like skiing, snowboarding, and sledding may have too high of a risk of injury. In that case, check out indoor alternatives like swimming, rock climbing, trampoline parks, or gym memberships where your friends are members.
Plan for family gatherings. Many people have a relative or two they struggle with during family get-together during the holiday season. Instead of getting anxious about the interaction, or being tempted to avoid the function altogether, be proactive. Contact those attendees you do want to spend time with, and build up your anticipation of the positive aspects of the event. Fostering positive outcomes is better than devoting your emotional energy to worrying about potential negatives.
Consider a therapeutic lightbox. While a lightbox with 10,000 lux is about $40 on Amazon, it’s a simple and relatively inexpensive thing to try to help specifically with the symptoms of oversleeping and overeating. The goal of treatment with a light box is 20-40 minutes of exposure, early in the morning. For those with bipolar disorder, the research suggests that trying light therapy in the middle of the day, from 12:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., may be more beneficial.
Keep up the talk therapy. If you have a relationship with a counselor, therapist, psychologist, or social worker, keep up with your regular visits. If you’re worried about depression after previous issues during the winter, go ahead and schedule an extra session or two, if you can afford it and fit it in your schedule. Knowing the extra support is there if you need it may help during difficult moments.
Rachel Featherstone is a nurse practitioner practicing at Alchemy Wellness, the newest ketamine clinic in Richmond, Virginia. Her professional focus is on the intersection of reproduction, sex, and mental health. She is a proud graduate of Frontier Nursing University, where she studied women’s health. When she’s not reading journal articles or kayaking, she’s spending her time resurrecting the Greater Richmond Maternal Mental Health Coalition.