9 Tips for Fighting Seasonal Depression This Winter
The Earth lies dormant in the winter, and I want to hibernate, too. With my bipolar disorder, feeling depressed after New Year’s can drag all the way through March. I’ve learned to expect the post-holiday struggle, and push roots deeper to thrive in the chill. If you have bipolar, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or another condition that makes this season challenging, here are nine things that might help.
1. Follow the lights.
In “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” Gollum warns Frodo and Sam the Dead Marshes are haunted: “Don’t follow the lights!” If Gollum watched lights of a different kind, he might have lifted some of the pain fueling his ring addiction. In the cold of winter, my sun-starved body wants to stay in bed. My therapist suggested getting a light therapy lamp, which stimulates your eyes and brain like sunshine without the damage of UV rays. A word of caution: If you have bipolar like I do, go slow when introducing light therapy, because too much exposure can induce mania. I started with 10 minutes on the lowest setting, sitting in Lotus pose after my morning alarm. Since day one, I feel less foggy and more energized in the morning.
2. Stay moving.
My yoga teacher says our bodies need movement nutrients as much as food and water. When I am sedentary or housebound for too long, my mind slows down and depression sets in. I’ll never be an athlete and hate going to the gym, but I can take 30 minutes most days to walk, even if I’m pushing a stroller. When it’s too cold or rainy or I feel stiff, I practice yoga. If you have access to an indoor pool, dance class or cross-country skiing, full-body motion can pump life back, too.
3. Get out and about.
Whenever possible, I exercise outside. Sunshine may be limited this time of year, but every bit helps, and the mental boost from fresh air and open space can’t be beat in my opinion. I tend a few outdoor plants that can endure the cold, and when I walk to my mailbox, I try to breathe deeply and notice the sky. Changing your environment and routine in other ways can also combat a depressive mood. I get in a rut when my habits and habitations blur too much the same. Switch it up. Go to a park or library, buy groceries somewhere different or take an alternate route home.
4. Bloom creative.
In December, I made the mistake of putting the brakes on my creative outlet. Why take on more than gift-giving, Christmas vacation and extra commitments to family and friends? I thought the activity would ease my depression, but instead it got worse, and looking back, I can see why. Writing keeps me grounded, connected and mentally fresh. Rather than stop when I feel slammed, I need this practice especially when I am busy, even if the pockets for doing it shrink. Save space in your life for creative growth. Anything you invest in for fun counts as creative, from pets and photo books. to baking and your Spotify, so pick one for keeps and savor its joy.
5. Nurture connection.
I lose myself on social media when I am tired and lonely. Instagram can be encouraging, but it can’t replace a hug and a face-to-face chat. Seasons and stages can make your community look different; it might include gatherings and one-on-ones with a significant other, family, friends, church, health support group or a therapist. Even when you feel empty, your presence offers something to an in-person friend. If you’ve been hurt by predatory people or experienced abuse, risking connection may be hard, and you may need a counselor or mentor to help you learn trust. Safe people are real, and healing is, too.
6. Find your rest.
I feel my best when I’ve had enough sleep, but depression makes me want to sleep too much. This winter, I’m setting an alarm to get me up between 6:30 and 7:30, no matter what. If I want or need more sleep, I have to go to bed early. In seasons of deeper sickness, I needed unpredictable amounts of sleep, and trying to regulate it left me tired and stressed. Experiment with what works for you. If I’m fighting sleeplessness, I turn off screens when I take my medicine at night, then do an Epsom salt bath. Plain Epsom salts not only replenish magnesium stores needed for rest, but also pull out toxins through the skin. Water is my happy place and the warmth soothes me into slowing down.
7. Look for lovely.
My pastor says darkness yields rich, black soil to grow the seeds of hope. As painful as struggling with mental illness can be, beauty draws me upward if I slow enough to see her: a sprinkling of starlight when I take out the trash after a mind-numbing mom-cycle of food, poop and laundry. Joy, gratitude and humor can surprise me even as my heart shatters in the cold and the dark. We can fall apart and hold together in the same moment, the same deep breath. Work and grief take us to the end of ourselves and the beginning of peace beyond what makes sense. Keep your eyes and heart open. Love surrounds our needs.
8. Guard your heart.
Depression pulls us down more easily when our hearts feel fragile. Last week, I did therapy for a painful childhood passage, and when I got home, I wanted sweets and new clothes. I ate a few bites of leftover pound cake, but managed to throw the rest away. Sugar and shopping mask my pain, and I will regret the empty calories and vanished dollars later. I knew the emotional space I had entered would be better faced with friendship and rest. So, I invited a sister to have breakfast with me and babysit my daughter while I got out to write. The cravings lingered, but this time I said no and watered my Earth instead.
9. Hone your center.
Winter’s chill and stillness invites tending yourself gently with healing therapies such as massage, chiropractic and biofeedback. If these are out of reach, you can receive the benefit of a therapeutic approach through mindfulness and meditation. If you embrace a faith tradition, practicing silence and solitude can refill your spirit when energy runs low. When I center on a breath prayer, I am more aware of love’s presence and am refreshed for my next task.
I hope these suggestions offer help and hope for the season ahead. Each root you push deeper ushers healing in our world. Wherever you are, keep growing. You are seen and loved.
A version of this article was originally published on Lauren H White.