Please welcome our new contributing writer Lori from Third Day Farms! She lives in the same town as me and we’ve connected over raw milk pickups and oft commiserated about the problem of “our school feeds kids sugar and junk all day AHHHHHH!” It’s good to have someone on my team even if we keep losing. Her gardening and art expertise – and her heart for goodness – will be a great addition to our writing team. I am honored to introduce her to you! ~Katie
I was drowning.
The waves of despair washed over me as I gasped for breath. Melancholy overwhelmed me. What was happening?
Day turned to night and to day again. A calendar page flipped, and then another.
Finally one day, in a moment of clarity, I looked around and wondered “Why am I just laying here? Why am I letting these waves batter me?” I looked at my feet. What would happen if I stood up? With great effort, I rose up. The waves still lapped at my feet, but I could breathe.
I no longer felt threatened. A rush of strength and resiliency filled me.
I had choices.
I had options. I didn’t have to let life wash over me.
Perhaps you have felt this way, overwhelmed and gasping for air. Most of the year, I could live with a positive outlook, but each winter I would slip into despair.
It took me several years to realize what was happening actually had a name… and that I was not alone in my experience. In fact, it was more common than I expected.
More Than Just Feeling Sad
SAD is short for “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” and according to Mayo Clinic, it is a type of depression that appears with changes in the season. (SAD also stands for Standard American Diet and Seed Acquisition Disorder, an “ailment” that affects gardeners with far too many seed packets… but those are different posts for another day!)
It generally begins in the fall (when days begin to shorten) and usually relieves itself in the spring. SAD is quite common, especially among women living in northern climates. Symptoms often include fatigue, hopelessness, social withdrawal, irritability, difficulty focusing and general malaise.
Like all illnesses, SAD has varying degrees of intensity. While many people can successfully manage their SAD on their own, it may be helpful for others to seek the aid of medical professionals who specialize in treating depression. Together, they can develop a plan to ease symptoms and examine root causes.
If your Seasonal Affective Disorder is preventing you from functioning (for example, you can’t get out of bed) or if you experiencing any suicidal or threatening thoughts, please seek out professional help. I make no claims to be a health care professional. I simply want to offer practical tips that have helped me overcome my “SAD-ness.”
The Importance of Self-care
Imagine you are sitting on an airplane, waiting for takeoff. The flight attendants are going through the same old safety spiel, instructing you to “put on your own oxygen mask FIRST, before helping others put on their mask.” The last time I heard this, I looked at my children and paused. Wait, what? I’m supposed to take of myself first? But isn’t it “selfish” to think of myself first?
While raising my small children, I had worked tirelessly to make sure they were well cared for… but I was a run-down wreck. By the end of the day, I was empty.
In fact, I had come to believe that was how all mothers were destined to live – stretched to their limits, utterly exhausted, sleep deprived, with no time to themselves. It got to the point that wanting to take any time to care for myself made me feel utterly selfish.
However, that moment on the plane opened my mind to the idea that self-care is NOT selfish.
Think for a moment about religious leaders you know – pastors, priest, saints. We generally think of these people as being entirely selfless. But what we don’t see is the hours they spend each day in prayer, silence, contemplation and meditation. These self-care practices “fill their cup”, giving them with the strength and vitality to do their job each day.
In contrast, my cup was dry. By running myself ragged, I had successfully transformed myself into an angry, tired, withdrawn, pessimistic person who had no energy to stand up against SAD when it reared its ugly head each winter. I was not equipped to be the mother, wife, daughter and friend I was created to be.
Something had to change.
So I started asking myself questions…
- Why do I show compassion to my loved ones, but not myself?
- Would I dare treat anyone the way I treat myself?
- What are the circumstances in my life that are out of my control? What CAN I control?
- What brings me joy? How can I incorporate those things into my life more often?
- What are the triggers that bring on feelings of helplessness? Can I prevent some of those triggers?
- Are there imbalances in my life (spiritual, mental, physical)?
The simple act of asking questions and realizing I had options was life changing. I didn’t have to live my life letting the waves wash over me. I could stand up. I could DO something. And it had to start with Self Care.
How Self-care Increases Well-being
In her book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, author Jo Marchant explores the connection between body and mind, and its implications for healing. From her studies, she has proven that people who feel loved and cared for actually heal faster and respond better to treatment than those who feel lonely, scared or isolated. She also discovered that simply taking active measures to “heal” could have dramatic effects.
For example, by kissing a child’s “boo-boo” and putting a bandage on it, we are actually reducing their pain – they feel loved and cared for, which stimulates the parts of the brain associated with well-being and decreases the brain activity in the areas that sense pain and despair. No wonder my kids always ask for band-aids!
Just as we can ease our children’s pain by showing them love, compassion, and tangible actions, we can do the same for ourselves. We can actively participate in the management of all aspects of our health, including SAD.
Self-care is the key.
Treat yourself with the same level of love, compassion and care as you would treat one of your loved ones!
Here are some self-care strategies that I use on a regular basis, the “oxygen mask” I put on so I can be the wife, mother, daughter and friend I need to be.
15 Tips for Coping with SAD
1. Get Outside
The simple act of stepping outdoors is an incredible mood booster, good for both the body and the soul. Feelings of calmness and well-being overwhelm me when I’m outside. I’ve even witnessed this transformation in my children – if they are upset, we go outside and the change in mood is almost immediate.
I would encourage nearly everyone to spend at least a few minutes outdoors each day. Do you live in a cold climate? No problem! There is a saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” Dress warmly and get out there! When is the last time you made a snow angel? If that doesn’t bring a smile to your face, I don’t know what will!
Endorphins (chemicals in our body that work with brain receptors to reduce our perception of pain) are released when we exercise. There are countless studies that suggest that endorphins work in a similar manner as anti-depressants… and for some people, can be even more effective.
Outdoor exercise is often most helpful (a double whammy of mood boosters!), but working out at a gym or even at home can also be beneficial. Many people work out primarily for the mental health benefits. The physical benefits are just icing on the cake!
3. Create rituals
On hard days, it’s helpful to know that something good is on the horizon! I try to create daily, weekly and monthly rituals, so I always have an activity to look forward to. One of our favorite family rituals is ordering pizza and watching MacGyver on Sunday nights (yes, I just admitted on a “real food” blog that we order pizza. Keepin’ it real, folks ).
Be sure to schedule events to look forward to, such as:
- Family game night
- Date night with a loved one (spouse, child, family member)
- A vacation or fun day out
- Watching a favorite TV show
- Reading a book
- Meeting friends for coffee
4. Practice kindness and generosity
Ask yourself “What could I do for someone today?” It might be a kind word to the cashier at the store. Send your child’s teacher a quick note of appreciation. Compliment your spouse or child.
It doesn’t have to be anything big, but thinking outside of ourselves and making a point of “practicing” kindness and generosity has the potential to stop negative thought patterns in their tracks.
Scent has the ability to brighten our mood and soothe our soul. We’ve all experienced that spike of pleasure in our brain when we smell something that delights us. There are lots of way to bring good scents into your life!
- Put a few drops of your favorite essential oils on a cotton ball and stick it in a small glass jar with a lid (old herb/spice jars work well). When you need a mood lift, open the jar and breath deeply. Peppermint is especially effective for me!
- Place cotton balls with drops of essential oil on them in random places throughout the house, in lieu of toxic air fresheners. Refresh them every few days.
- Simmer herbs or spices in water on the stove to infuse the whole house with fresh scents (cinnamon, cloves, thyme, rosemary).
- Consider growing herbs on your windowsill. Basil, rosemary, peppermint, lemon balm and lavender are just a few great options! Crush the leaves between your fingers and inhale whenever you need a pick me up.
6. Physical contact
Sometimes we just need a hug. In his new book Touch, author and neurobiologist David Linden emphasizes that touch is incredibly healing and crucial for healthy human development. Touch also strengthens bonds (which is important, because SAD often makes us feel disconnected from others) and creates feelings of well-being.
So ask for that hug!
Hold hands. Get a massage. If you don’t have someone in your life that can do that, pets are another great option. Endless studies have shown that stroking a pet reduces stress and ignites pleasure centers in our brain. Unfortunately, keeping a pet can be expensive and time-consuming. Here are some ways one could get some “animal therapy” on a budget.
7. Embrace Coziness
A while back, I read an article about Norwegians and the fact that SAD is nearly non-existent in their culture, despite their long, dark winters. One point that struck home was the concept of “embracing coziness,” celebrating and cherishing the things that winter offers.
Norwegians revel in wearing warm clothing, consuming hot seasonal drinks, embracing candlelight, cuddling under blankets, knitting and other “winter friendly” activities. They even have a special name for it – “koselig.” Instead of wishing winter away, find ways to embrace it in all its cozy glory!
8. Say No
Take actions to eliminate activities in your life that create drama, busyness or added stress, even if those are “good” things. Of course, you can’t remove all stress, but we don’t have to lay down and take it.
Remember, every time you say “no” to one thing, you are saying “yes” to something else! “Yes” to more sleep, more time with family, more peace, more time to breathe. You can always resume an activity when you are feeling better. Be kind to yourself and realize you simply don’t have the capacity to do everything in this season of your life.
Talk with your health care provider if you suspect you are not getting adequate nutrition, as this can affect mental health enormously. Nutritional deficiencies are common in winter for people living in northern climates, since food is shipped longer distances and is less fresh. Fruits and veggies start rapidly losing nutrients as soon as they are picked.
In addition, foods are only as “healthy” as the soil they are grown in. Unfortunately, many agricultural practices deplete nutrients in the soil, and nutrient depleted soil leads to nutrient-depleted food. It might not be physically possible to get all the nutrients you need from food sources during the winter season.
10. Practice meditation/prayer
The practice of meditation and prayer has a powerful effect on the mind. It’s called practice for a reason – it requires time and commitment.
Try focusing on a verse, passage or quote if you don’t know where to start. Find a place where you can be still and feel at peace – being outdoors is essential for me, even during the middle of the winter (I just bundle up in my snow gear and sit outside), but it could even take place in the car while waiting to pick up kids after school.
Look at the Psalms for inspiration – there are Psalms for all seasons, moods and emotions. David was not afraid to speak his heart to God and neither should we!
11. Eat well
It goes without saying, but junk food will make us feel like junk. You are what you eat!
Making an effort to eat foods that nourish and heal your body and mind is time well spent. When you are shopping in the store, examine each food before you throw it in the cart: Will this food heal me or harm me?
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”, said Hippocrates. While you are cooking all this healthy food, make extras so there are good options in the kitchen, and less temptation to eat junk.
12. Get houseplants or start growing plants
Green is soothing and healing. Studies have shown that plants increase feelings of well-being and may even reduce stress. Placing a few house plants around the house can immediately lift your mood.
During the dreary days of March when my SAD threatens the most, I start growing vegetable and flower plants in my basement under grow lights. Watching the seeds “magically” come to life under the bright lights is incredibly therapeutic.
It just so happens that my seed starting lights have the same qualities as “Light Boxes” or “Phototherapy Boxes” that are often recommended by doctors to combat SAD. I get my light fix, my green plant fix AND I’m growing nourishing food for my family – in one fell swoop! Now how’s THAT for multitasking?!
13. Seek beauty
Actively search out things that are beautiful or bring you joy. Take the time to pause and enjoy those things. Be fully conscious of the moment.
Do your best to make your surroundings soothing. Here are a few idea that work for me:
- Purchase fresh flowers/plants to brighten a room
- Hanging posters/prints/photos that make you smile
- Clear clutter
- Listen to your favorite music
- Set up a bird feeder outside a window
- Cook/prepare food slowly and appreciatively (chopping vegetables can be soothing – all those beautiful colors!)
The dark days of winter are a good time to work on improving sleep habits. Make rest a priority, just as you would when fighting off any illness.
While getting enough hours of sleep is important, it’s even more vital to stick to a sleep routine – sleeping and rising at roughly the same time each day. Also, avoid looking at screens (phone, computer, tablets, etc.) for at least an hour before going to bed, as screens can have a negative impact on sleep. My rule is no screens after 9 pm to ensure restful sleep each night.
15. Sit with the Pain
Sometimes, it’s best to simply embrace the pain.
We all experience the “dark night of the soul” at one time or another. These are times that encourage deep personal growth and reflection. There are valuable lessons that are learned only in the darkness. When feeling hopeless, we can be assured that morning will come…and we will be a changed person because of our suffering.
I’m certainly not trying to diminish anyone’s pain, but time and again, I’ve seen how my pain and suffering have allowed me to relate more authentically and on a deeper level with others.
Our suffering is not needless.
So don’t rush the pain. Embrace it.
Don’t be afraid. Morning WILL come.
Suffering from SAD, depression, or another illness? Contributor Bethany shared some of her tips for cooking during these hard times. Like Lori said above, healthy food can be a big help, especially when you plan ahead for it.
These 15 tips have allowed me to live with SAD.
I no longer fear the waves of despair – instead, I look forward to winter as a time when I engage in self-care and learn more about myself.