How I Learned to Love Winter & Manage My SAD
Winter can be a hard time for anyone with mental illness.
This is especially true if, like me, you live somewhere where it gets cold and dark for months at a time. As someone who loves to be outside and play sports, I find winter to be generally boring and without the same joie de vivre of the summer months. On top of that, the reduced levels of sunlight in winter can create winter-onset SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. What is SAD? SAD occurs when there is a disruption in your body’s internal clock, which results in a drop in your brain’s serotonin levels. This drop in serotonin, the chemical in our brain that makes us feel happy, can lead to feelings of depression.
So, is there any way to salvage some happiness and fun out of winter for people like me? Or are we doomed to be sad half the year, every year? I’m inclined to believe the former.
This past winter my therapist and I came up with a new approach that helped me not just survive, but thrive during the dark, cold months of the year. This approach was designed to help alleviate my SAD, as well as simply make winter more of an exciting and nourishing time. I’d like to share my approach with you, with the caveat that this set of steps was made specifically for me and may not apply to your life. Even if some of my tools don’t resonate with you, I hope you at least are inspired to create your own approach that works for you and your circumstances.
Let’s dive in!
1. Make a plan
The most important part of my new approach towards winter was sitting down with my therapist one day in autumn and actually writing up a plan for the coming months. But it wasn’t just the plan itself that helped me, it was also the making of it. It was the process of taking the time to think about what would make me happy. After that day, my mindset changed from believing in an inevitable decline in happiness during winter, to believing I had the strength and wherewithal to change my relationship to the season. The success of my plan was predicated on this new belief, and kept me moving forward even during my darkest winter moments.
2. Get a therapist (or continue seeing your current one)
Therapy is important for me year-round, but during the winter months it becomes absolutely crucial. Winter is when my negative self-talk ramps up and begins to convince me that the people in my life don’t really love me. Pretty hard to feel happy when I’m walking around with that idea in my head! Last winter, my therapist helped me break down this harmful self-talk and find the root of it, helping me to step back and see it as a part of my illness rather than actual truth. This alleviated a huge amount of my stress and allowed me to enjoy the holidays much more than years before. A therapist can help you create strategies for managing the particular stresses that come up for you during wintertime and refer you to medical tools and specialists, such as SAD lamps and psychiatrists, if you’re in need of extra help.
3. Lean into rest and quiet
I’ve come to realize that a large amount of my feelings of being bored in the wintertime have come from a desire to experience the same type of fun, high-level energy I feel during the spring and summer months. But the more I looked at how our bodies respond to winter, the more I realized we just aren’t built that way. When the darkness and cold temperatures set in, our bodies naturally want to rest. You’ll notice if you Google something like, “why am I so tired in the winter?” a million articles will pop up with the different scientific ways winter makes us tired, combined with strategies to “combat” the fatigue. But what if I really did allow wintertime to be a time of rest? What if I allowed my body a little extra sleep and didn’t constantly fight against its natural urge to be quieter? What if I took these months to reflect, meditate and focus on myself?
Well, I did! And it went really, really well. I spent a huge amount of my last winter reading, writing and spending time with myself. When asked if I wanted to go out on a Friday night, I often declined and chose to snuggle and watch Netflix with my partner instead. I moved most of activities into the mornings and allowed myself to be in bed earlier on nights before work, knowing I’d need extra energy to get through the day. I gave myself more slack on getting things done and asked for help more often. I cut back on coffee and resisted the urge to force myself into high-energy mode all the time. To sum it up, I did my what body wanted to do. And it paid off. I felt less stressed and anxious and more at peace with my situation.
4. Plan trips
Winter is a SERIOUSLY underrated time to go on a trip! First of all, it is way cheaper to travel in wintertime. Other than the holidays, the cost of flights both nationally and internationally significantly drop down during winter months.Not to mention, the whole point of going on a trip is to get you out of your own space and shoot some energy into your life! What other time of the year would you need that type of experience more than during the winter? Even if you can’t afford a trip to Europe or Asia, booking a room in the town over during a long weekend and seeing/doing some new things will help break up the monotony of the colder months. For myself, I planned a small trip in the beginning of December and a larger one in February, since those are the times I get most antsy.
5. Get a YMCA membership (or other similar community gym/organization)
Have you ever heard of this place called the YMCA? Did you know that they not only have a gym, but also a pool, organized indoors sports and group exercise classes? Wow!
Seriously though, getting a Y membership was one of the best things I did last winter. The ability to go to a place where I had options for how I was going to get my body moving was extremely helpful in not getting overwhelmed with working out. Sometimes I would drive to the Y and head into the locker room and just sit in the sauna to get warmed up, then head out without doing any type of exercise. The Y is also great because they offer financial assistance and is widely accessible to different communities. If there’s no YMCA in your area or you just don’t like it, I highly recommend any gym that provides group exercise classes for days when you just aren’t able to motivate yourself.
6. Pick up an indoors hobby or project
I know I said I let myself rest last winter, and I did, but I also made a point to start a project that would keep my mind occupied. For me, it was a writing project that I had wanted to start for awhile but always felt too busy for. As the nights got colder and I had less and less desire to leave the house, I busied myself with kicking the project off in earnest. I was surprised to find that the project went exceptionally well and that I was much more creative than I expected myself to be. The winter may actually be the best time to begin any hobby or project that takes extra focus and concentration. Need some inspo for some cool hobbies to start during winter? Click here.
7. Host game nights
One of the biggest things that gets me down in winter is lack of socialization. I love laughing and connecting with my friends and loved ones. But in the winter months we often end up seeing each other less. This is due to the aforementioned winter fatigue, cold air and low number of events going on around town. The best way I found to get the socialization I need in winter without overextending myself is to host game nights! I always thought I was someone who didn’t like board and card games. But last year I discovered that there are so many games beyond Monopoly and Scrabble. There are games you play through the TV, such as Jackbox, there’s card games that involve strategy, such as Bucket of Doom, there’s games that test how well you know your friends, such as Hot Seat, and many, many more. Last year my friends and I committed to weekly game nights, which kept us in touch with each other as much as it kept us laughing all winter long.
So, there it is — the way I made it through last winter feeling grounded and content, as well as the way I plan on approaching the upcoming winter months. Again, not everything on this list may apply to you. That’s totally ok! My only hope is that through sharing the things that helped me, you may get closer to finding the tools and strategies you need to have the best winter possible.