As I sit writing this, the day outside is damp and overcast. There is a steady drizzle in the air. Windshield wipers go back and forth on the cars whizzing by. Looking out the window, it is hard not to feel a bit gloomy.
Approaching the shorter days of fall and winter, many of us may feel a sense of trepidation. “Oh no. Here we go again: less sunlight, more feelings of anxiety and depression.” For those who find the holidays to be difficult, there may be additional distress. I know for myself, when I see the first shelf of candy corn at the store, that it is time to take stock of how I am feeling.
Adding to seasonal changes, we are 7 months into the Covid pandemic, and cold and flu season are upon us. We will be spending more time indoors because of the weather, and that stir-crazy feeling is about to ramp up.
How to manage this? We may ask, is this Seasonal Affective Disorder, or does everyone feel this way right now? Are there things we can do to stay ahead of the dark days of winter and to shore up our emotional resources?
The good news is that yes, there are ways to prepare ourselves and to strengthen our resilience at this very moment. Through a combination of self-compassion, observing our feelings, caring for our physical bodies, and connecting with others we can ride out the fall and winter and maybe even enjoy it.
Research indicates that 3 million people per year in the United States have S.A.D. I suggest that if you are suffering with feelings of dread or anxiety that seem to be increasing as the daylight hours decrease, start by acknowledging this. By observing our feelings, we can get a bit of distance from them and notice what is going on. We can remember that our feelings are not facts, and we can look upon ourselves with compassion.
It may be useful to look at Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and learn how treatment for this condition can also benefit our mental health in general during the short days of winter. S.A.D. is a constellation of symptoms that occurs primarily during the late fall and winter months. Feeling moody, anxious, or less energetic are often associated with S.A.D. The loss of interest in social interaction, the desire to eat more and to sleep more are also common symptoms. The thought is that as dawn gets later and later over the course of the fall and winter, our melatonin production gets out of sync with our sleep-wake cycle. For people who get up before dawn, there is not enough sunlight in those early hours to calibrate our circadian rhythms. Our brain thinks it is still time to produce melatonin, but our bedside alarm clock thinks otherwise.
In addition to this, the general lack of sunlight and the shorter daylight hours during fall and winter can inhibit the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and helps us feel good, is increased with exposure to sunlight. Interestingly, research has shown that people with S.A.D. have less serotonin activity in the brain. One solution? Light exposure.
If you do not get enough natural light during the winter months, you can supplement your light exposure by using phototherapy. Phototherapy (also called light therapy) mimics natural outdoor light and appears to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Using either a light box or light visor shortly after waking each morning can provide enough broad-spectrum light through your eyes to boost your mood. This treatment is safe, but it is best discussed with your doctor regarding dosage and type of devise to use.
Another strategy to treat S.A.D. that helps alleviate depression and anxiety is to get moving. Exercise has been shown to boost serotonin production, and it is a good way of taking care of your body. Walking outside is an easy way to get both exercise and light exposure: a two for one!
For some people with S.A.D., it can be extremely helpful to meet with a medical provider about taking antidepressant medication, an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor). Meeting with a therapist and talking through your stressors and concerns is definitely a big help. Joining an online support group (yes, there are online S.A.D. support groups!) is another idea.
Regardless of whether your down mood is officially diagnosed as S.A.D, or whether you are suffering from depression brought on by Covid and crummy weather, it is important to get treatment. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, start by acknowledging your feelings. Looking at your feelings non-judgmentally is a way of being compassionate with yourself. Let’s face it: this is a hard time! Know that you are not alone and get the help you need to move forward toward spring.
Author: Elisabeth Hargrove, MPH, LCSW
Elisabeth Hargrove, MPH, LCSW, is a clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience with a diverse client population in the Triangle area. Elisabeth’s passion is helping clients find their inner strength and resiliency. Her approach is warm, collaborative and non-judgmental. She uses short-term solution focused therapy, motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral techniques to address a range of concerns including anxiety, depression and anger management. Elisabeth has experience working with young children, teens and adults around family issues, behavioral concerns and trauma. She speaks Spanish and has many years of experience working with and advocating for the local Latino community.
Elisabeth believes that life is worth living and that each of us has inherent worth and dignity. She finds it a privilege to help clients uncover their own strength and optimism about life. Life is hard. It can help to have a safe place to bring feelings of stress however they manifest: anxiety, depression, disordered eating, insomnia or chronic health conditions. Elisabeth has experience in Behavioral Health Integration and is keenly aware of the relationship between mental and physical health.
Elisabeth has lived in the Triangle for 30 years, having graduated with a B.A. in English from Davidson College and an M.P.H. and an M.S.W. from UNC Chapel Hill. She loves to spend time with her family and friends, being outside in nature, listening to music and practicing meditation.