A Survivor’s Guide to Dealing With SAD/Seasonal Depression
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
Lately I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from my normally scheduled creative work. It’s just been too hard to focus with the onset of my Seasonal Affective Disorder. I actually made a sort of mini awareness post on that subject earlier in the week and of course that offer still stands if you would like to ask me about SAD. But I really wanted to do more than that. Doctors can tell us a lot about a medical condition from a clinical standpoint, but they miss the crucial elements that a person suffering from the condition can tell you about. Every ailment has a personal aspect to it, because when we are sick in any capacity it isn’t a blanket experience, it’s defined by what we bring to the table as individuals as well.
You probably think in one of two camps when you hear the term Seasonal Affective Disorder. You will probably either think it’s not a real thing or you’ll just think I’m talking about having Clinical Depression in the Winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as Seasonal Depression, is in fact similar in symptoms and most other aspects to Clinical Depression but it stands out by when it occurs. Some studies suggest that it is linked to the gradual decrease in sunlight that happens when Winter approaches. It can be a difficult condition to properly diagnose because it comes at a time when we have holidays and other circumstances that can make it seem like part of the normal mood of that time of year. It can also be hard to really grasp as a person that you can have a seasonal depression, so most people who have it don’t acknowledge they they have a medical condition that’s treatable.
It can even be confused as just clinical depression, which is part of what happened with me. When I first went to get my depression diagnosed way back in high school, it was during the winter season and looking back at my medical history all of my major depressive episodes were in Fall or Winter. It just took a while and a lot more knowledge about Seasonal Depression for me to pinpoint I had SAD and not regular Clinical Depression. The condition can manifest in nicer seasons in a rarer form, but primarily is characterized by a marked depression that onsets in the Fall,intensifies in Winter and tapers off in Spring. You may think that seems not too bad but that’s 4-6 months at least of a 12 month year that SAD sufferers are crippled by depression.
That’s nearly half of the year and it comprises some of the most family-oriented holidays out of the calendar year. That means the people suffering with SAD are burdened with the condition during a time when it also becomes a burden for their families. They are missing out on fully enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner or opening presents on Christmas morning. I’ve personally not only missed multiple holiday events because of the condition but also hurt myself on one Christmas Eve because of the condition and had to spend it getting my stomach pumped. Depression is a serious condition and that stands whether it happens halfway in or the entire year.
Despite occurring only part of the year, SAD hits a sufferer hard. It onsets very gradually and hits you like a brick in the Winter months. It’s almost a concentrated form of depression that has a built-in false sense of security when it tapers off in Spring. Medicating it becomes a challenge because it onsets at different times for different people and depending on the person it can take 2-6 weeks for an antidepressant to reach a therapeutic level.
If you happen to be feeling like any of what I’m talking about sounds very close to home, I will be posting a link to some more information sites on SAD at the end of this blog that I would encourage you to check out. If you feel like it’s affecting you or it sounds like something someone you know experiences then know that it is a treatable condition. Learn more about it and talk to a doctor. It will change the whole outlook of the situation, save more than a few holidays and possibly save a life.
What I really want to talk about beyond making people aware of what SAD is, is how to get through it if you’re a sufferer. I know what it’s like to spend multiple days in bed, lose interest in everything, not be able able to eat without getting sick at the thought of it or be up staring at the dark ceiling of your room because you feel dead inside and physically drained but somehow not sleepy. There are people who will hear you mention depression and say they can totally relate but there needs to be a point where we really acknowledge as a society that depression is more than “feeling blue”. Depression seeps into every aspect of a person’s life and drastically lowers the quality of it.
Depression isn’t just a feeling, it’s being physically sick,mentally a stranger to yourself and loved ones,literally not being able to get out of bed and crying for no distinct reason until you run out of tears. But more than taking it seriously, we need to create a culture where people don’t feel they don’t need to be ashamed to ask for help and love themselves enough to help themselves. Treating depression is more than pills and therapy. It’s making a choice to live better once you have those aids backing you up. The idea that a miracle pill or instant solution exists for mental health, or anything for that matter, is a lie. We need to really admit there’s a problem and truly want to improve it.
If you’ve been suffering with your SAD even after getting medication and seeking therapy, this article is mainly for you, but if you’re concerned about someone you know suffering from SAD this may also help you.
Covering the Bases
Tackling your depression successfully means covering the most basic areas of your life. Depression is dangerous to quality of life because it destroys foundations we take for granted as people. If you follow the steps in this section, you will not become a millionaire, but you will build habits that protect the foundation of your being and put you on solid ground to battle your depression.
Step One: Get out of bed.
This may seem like a really pointless sentence if you’ve never suffered depression. Getting out of bed each day is something most people don’t need to think about but when you have depression that’s a very different situation. Getting out of bed becomes the hardest thing in the world to do. Your bed feels like quicksand and your body feels full of boulders. Sometimes there seems to be no point to even doing it. You feel worthless, tired and hopeless. You may not have even wanted to wake up if your dealing with suicidal thoughts. If that’s you than I want to tell you something. Get out of bed.
If it takes you hours and it’s the only thing you do that day, get out of bed. If someone criticizes you for not being able to do it or taking so long to do it, then tell them which hole to stick that opinion in and get out of bed. If you can get out of bed and take that first step, you need to realize that’s amazing and so are you. Don’t worry about how long it takes or what point of the day it is. Just get out of bed. Walk away from your bed far enough to look back at it then realize there’s still ground under your feet and life going on around you. But none of that matters as much as you getting out of bed.
A person who has never dealt with depression may not think it’s impressive to get out of bed, but let me tell you something. If you have depression and all you did was get out of bed today, you’re amazing and I’m proud of you. You should be too. If you can get of bed today then you can keep getting up tomorrow and everyday after that. You don’t have to be better. You don’t have to be at 100%. Just get out of bed. The day you don’t try to get out of bed is the day that your depression wins so if you do anything today, get out of bed.
Step Two: Make basic care a priority.
Depression can often make it hard to keep up with self-care. Brushing your teeth suddenly requires the strength it takes a to saw through a thick log and lifting a hairbrush to brush your hair is like lifting a huge weight. It’s hard to see a point to taking care of yourself, because key to self-care is loving yourself. When you can’t see your self-worth, being clean doesn’t seem to matter. On top of that, most people just see it as gross, not as a sign you need help and compassion. It makes you feel even worse. I won’t say I haven’t gone days skipping hygiene when my depression really sets in, because I have. When I was working and confident, I would pride myself on being neat and clean. I loved how smooth my clean teeth were and having a glow to my skin. When I’m dealing with my depression it’s the complete opposite. I’m too disgusted with myself to do anything.
One of the things that helped me is setting the rule that I couldn’t leave my house dirty. If I want to go somewhere or do something I never do it dirty. But part of beating the literal and mental funk of how depression affects self-care requires layered methods sometimes. What if going out isn’t a motivation for you? You can alter it a little. Replace going out with an activity that is still in your daily routine. If you spend a lot of time on the computer, make it that you can’t touch your computer dirty. If you’re reading a book you pick up everyday then make it that you can’t pick that book up if you’re dirty. Find the thing you still need and make it conditional to being clean. This will make taking care of yourself a higher priority.
Another thing that helps is to realize that cleanliness has a benefit. Being clean makes you feel better. Beyond stopping your teeth from falling out or making you smell better, you’re moving and you’re not only using light massage therapy but also aromatherapy in the process. Being clean has some surprisingly potent mental health benefits. The simple act of being clean might be the push you need to have a more productive day. If you want to make it harder to avoid then do it first thing once you get up. No matter what time of day you get up, go straight to the bathroom and wash yourself as first priority. Even if your day is starting out late and not a full day, focus on doing your best and feeling your best by being clean. Little milestones can become huge steps toward progress when you’re dealing with depression.
Step Three: Eat at least one real meal each day.
Depression can take away or increase an appetite in a person. It can also make a person crave the wrong foods or become physically sick when thinking about the act of eating. We’re going to look at the issue from both angles. First, if you’re the type to crave the wrong things, you can take a similar approach to the method for prioritizing washing. Hinge eating good foods on being allowed to eat the bad food. For example, if you want to binge on cookies make it a provision to eat a real food item first even if it’s something small like a sandwich. Make it a requirement to eat a good food and then reward yourself with the snack. This will help you control your diet a little bit more and make you think before overloading on junk. You can also try forcing portion control on your snacks. Instead of buying a big pack of cookies, buy smaller packs like the 100 calorie snacks or just buy one snack and portion it out into smaller bags. Learning to get satisfied off the smaller portions will pay off in the long run and teach you better eating habits.
If you still feel you gotta snack, find better alternatives to slowly substitute in like a bowl of cereal or a piece of fruit. You can even try something like a protein shake or bar which may seem odd to taste at first but once you adjust they can be just as satisfying as a candy bar but with less sugar and calories.
Next let’s talk about not eating enough. For me personally, this is my downfall. I can go days without eating because I either have no appetite or thinking about eating makes me get physically ill. Eating a huge meal can make this a little more daunting so try restructuring your meals a little. Take smaller portions and take your time. If you get through one plate of real food during the day and that’s your limit, that’s fine. You can work up to eating more, supplement by making sure you graze on good snacks and at least know you’ve consumed one decent meal.
If form factor is still an issue or your stomach seems sensitive, make some changes to accommodate. Try to avoid eating heavy, greasy or saucy foods. Maybe you can’t eat a full pot roast meal but try something light like a sandwich, a bowl of ramen or a scrambled egg. It’s better than eating nothing at all. Try something small and unoffensive like protein shakes or bars and make sure you take vitamins so you aren’t losing nutrients. Always make sure you stay hydrated. Even if you aren’t thirsty, drink some water everyday. Just because you can’t feel being hungry doesn’t mean you don’t need to eat and drink.
Something that works for me is to eat with someone. Time your meals so you aren’t eating alone and you may feel more motivated to eat. If you notice an excess in unplanned weight gain or loss, consider it a red flag. Losing weight from not eating means you also lose nutrients and aren’t gaining muscle. Starvation isn’t healthy and eating disorders are closely linked to mental health. Overeating is also a health hazard and easy to lose track of. Regardless of your unique situation, make sure that you keep a watchful eye on your eating habits when you’re depressed and make it a priority to make good diet choices. What you put or don’t put into your body has everything to do with how you feel.
Step Four: Change clothes everyday.
This will probably seem like small thing, but when you’re dealing with depression, this can be a huge factor. Changing into clean clothes is not just a self-care act. It’s also symbolic we are clean and moving forward. It’s one of the ways we signal to our mind that a new day is happening and time is moving forward. Now I’m not saying you need to get up and put a full suit on each day. I’m as guilty as anyone else for lounging in my jammies or wearing a pair of jeans a few times in a row. There’s nothing really wrong with that. What I mean is to make sure that you change your undergarments everyday and make some effort to change your outfit. Changing undergarments is actually good for your health and not just something your mother nags you about, and the act of changing your clothes means you’re moving and taking some movement forward. Put on clean pajamas and if you want to wear those jeans again, at least change the shirt you’re wearing. Don’t sit around and settle for being in dirty clothing. This affects your mood more than you think. It represents you stalling in time.
Just as important when you’re depressed is to dress in a way that promotes good mental health. Wear colors that make you happy. If you feel tense and have nowhere to go, throw on some comfortable but clean pajamas and jam out, my friend. If you have to work, pick fabrics that you feel comfortable in. Dress in a way that promotes wellness, because the look and feel of your clothing is making an impact you may not notice on how you feel. Clothes may not make the man but they can definitely make you feel a certain way.
Step Five: Stay on track with your pills and therapy.
A huge component of good mental health is getting the medical care you need. Make sure you take your pills on schedule and go to therapy even if you don’t want to or feel you don’t need it. If you feel like either component isn’t working for you then find a doctor you connect with and stay strong while searching for the right antidepressant. It can take a little while for these factors to fall into place but they are necessary pieces of the puzzle. Some pills take over a month to really build in your system, so you won’t feel better overnight. Some doctors aren’t going to be the right fit to work with you and there needs to be some chemistry for therapy to work. Love yourself enough to push through and find the treatments you need, because they’re the cavalry when it comes to battling depression.
If you’re afraid to seek treatment, try to focus on your end goal. Whether that end goal is being able to get up every day and eat a meal with your family or whether it’s to regain work productivity doesn’t really matter. Just set treatment goals. Think about what’s on the other side and you’ll want to go through the tunnel more. It will still be difficult and frustrating. It will take time. But looking forward to getting your life back will make it worth the journey.
Getting Through the Seasons
Even with basics covered, depression is difficult to deal with. This section will cover some small ways you can combat your depression and fortify the basic care steps from the first section.
Bring the sun to you.
Sunlight is believed to be a huge contributing factor to SAD, or rather the decrease of it, so why not make your own sunlight during those months? You can buy a natural sun lamp in various sizes. I personally have a desk lamp version that only put me out about $35.00 and the bulbs last a long time. In addition to getting the lamp, reduce how much time you spend in the dark. If you normally chill in a dark room, try curbing that urge when your SAD is active. It will make things a lot worse.
Associate your depression with positive outlets.
One of the things that helped me get through my depression in high school was channeling my depression into something positive. Despite what your school says, creativity is something you need. It not only helps you learn to think critically but gives you a way to positively and safely express yourself. But your outlet doesn’t have to be creative. The main idea is avoiding hurting yourself or doing something that will increase your depression. The main thing is to train your brain to associate your depression with a positive outlet. For me that means when I’m depressed or feel like hurting myself, I write. For you it can be different. Maybe you can draw,play a game,do a quick exercise, bake or even clean something. Whatever it is, try to train yourself to turn to a safe and positive outlet when you feel yourself sinking into deep depression. Over time it will teach you to channel your negative energy into something good.
Use aromatherapy and sound therapy.
The sounds and smells in our environment can have a heavy affect on us. When it comes to depression, silence can be a bad thing. It becomes a void and makes you feel stuck with your currently horrible thoughts. Using a sound machine or white noise machine can not only be a great distraction but also a sleep or mindfulness aid. My personal favorites are ocean waves or a crackling campfire on my sound machine. When it comes to smells, filling your space with a comforting smell can be a huge mood booster. Scents like vanilla or lavender can promote calm while other aromas can promote focus. Just having a smell you like is the main idea. It helps promote positive feelings. Never underestimate the impact it can have to make changes to your environment.
Create a schedule or a goal to accomplish at least one thing each day.
Feeling accomplished can be a hard thing when you’re weighed down by depression. The best way to approach it is to lessen how much stress to achieve you put on yourself. Don’t push yourself or work beyond your means. Start with small goals. If you can normally complete a to-do list with 5 tasks, cut it to 2 or 3 while you’re struggling with depression. Accomplishing half a list is better than overwhelming yourself and completing none of it. Being realistic in what you can achieve when you’re depressed isn’t a bad thing. Find happiness in your small achievements and work back up to your normal standards gradually. If you hit a tough day and all you achieve is getting out of bed and getting yourself cleaned up and changed, that’s awesome. Don’t sweat not being able to save the world if you’re struggling with depression. What you’re seeing as insignificant is actually huge because you did it while dealing with something huge on your shoulders.
If you feel like you’re losing structure, try creating a small schedule or checklist for yourself. Highlight the things you absolutely need to do each day and prioritize tasks that have later deadlines. Make sure you include doing something you want to do and break down large tasks into small chunks so they seem less scary. Depression can suck the fun out of hobbies and recreation so make sure you make efforts to stay in touch with something recreational and for you. All work and no play will add on to your depression. Organization and structure will look different through the lens of depression but maintaining it is just a matter of perspective and approach.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
I’ve never personally been a heavy drinker but one thing I will tell you is that you can technically still drink on antidepressants. The warnings on them to not drink are more of a shouldn’t than a can’t. It’s aimed at the type of person that can’t responsibly call it quits on their booze. But the fact of the matter that you really shouldn’t drink while taking antidepressants. Alcohol is a downer and negates the effects of an antidepressant. You’re essentially acting out that Simpsons episode where Homer becomes a truck driver but with potentially more dangerous results.
Whether you drink or not while on this type of pill is ultimately up to you and how it goes will depend on the person you are. My method was always seriously nursing a drink. Since I was on psychiatric medications before I was legal to drink, I had a decent understanding of them by the time I turned 21. When I had my first drink, which for useless factoid purposes was a Kahlua Mudslide, I nursed the hell out of that thing. I sipped it slow and it lasted about three hours. A few other things that might help if you choose to drink on these types of medications is that you absolutely must be able to stop yourself at low consumption. I always limit myself to one drink and one drink only. After that I order soda or water. Make sure you eat before you consume the drink. I never take a sip of my booze until I’ve eaten something, even if it’s just a roll or a salad. I never drink without eating first. Avoid heavy liquor. It will probably end badly. Watered down or mixed in something like a margarita is usually the only way I consume heavy liquor. Most importantly, never drink alone. Drinking alone really opens the door for substance abuse but around other people you’re less likely to abuse alcohol because of the added social experience.
Now you might wonder why I’m giving you drinking tips. Is it reverse psychology? No, it’s realism. People like to drink, and telling them to not drink is like putting teaching abstinence over selling condoms. There are just certain things people will do and it’s more realistic to tell them how to do it safely as opposed to getting blue in the face telling them it’s bad and they shouldn’t do it. I still think you shouldn’t drink, but if you do, think about it and be responsible. Remember that less is more when it comes to alcohol consumption and bear in mind it will affect your antidepressants. An occasional social drink won’t kill you but don’t make it a habit, and never take your pills close to consuming alcohol or with alcohol. I usually wait at least two hours after I’ve had alcohol to consume any of my prescription pills.
Now the lesser evil here is caffeine. The key to looking at caffeine consumption is to pinpoint what you get it from and how much. If you’re a soda drinker and you absolutely can’t be soda free, then change your soda choices during Fall and Winter. Drink something caffeine free like ginger ale, orange soda or root beer. You can also try substituting sparkling water with flavoring and add a little juice if you like. Sparkling juices like Izze can also fill the void. Caffeine can be a huge deterrent to curbing anxiety and increases stress. It also adds to things like weight gain and unpredictable energy levels. Never drink caffeine close to when you want to go to bed and if you’re a coffee drinker just try some decaf or limit how many cups of the stuff you’re drinking daily.
I understand as much as the next person that caffeine and alcohol are enjoyable. I don’t think cutting them off or depriving yourself something enjoyable is 100% viable as a solution. You just need to understand what consuming them means when you have depression and approach them responsibly. If you are stable and using it responsibly, light alcohol consumption or treating yourself to a can of soda probably won’t be the worst thing in the world but if you are feeling deeply depressed, be mindful and don’t make it worse consuming alcohol or caffeine. Your health should come first.
Plan for an emergency.
Bad things will happen and many people who suffer from depression also deal with self-harm and suicidal ideation. But a mental health emergency is just like any other type of emergency when it comes to benefiting from being prepared. But what kinds of things do you plan for exactly?
It may actually differ person to person but primarily you want to know the following:
- Where is the closest emergency room with a psychiatric ward?
- Who is the first person I’m going to call if I can’t make decisions for myself or take care of myself?
- Who is one other person I can trust to have access to my medical records,finances,etc.?
- Who is one other person I can trust to pick up my prescriptions?
- What are the red flags I need to watch for to indicate I’m having a mental health emergency?
Knowing these things before a mental health crisis can make a huge difference. If you can’t answer those questions right now than I would highly suggest thinking them over until you can. You may not think it’s a big deal now, but mental breakdowns are serious medical emergencies.
Being prepared in case something comes up can save your life and take off a lot of the stress of the situation. If you have a caretaker or a trusted family member in your support network, you can even prepare a checklist and instructions for them. That way if you can’t communicate with them during the emergency, they’ll know what they need to do for you. Some of the things that might be good for that list are your medications and dosage, numbers for anyone important like your doctor or therapist, and even what they need to pack if you need to go and be checked in for observation. No person wants to have a mental health emergency, but the least you can do to get yourself through it is be ready if it does happen.
Leave your house.
This one sounds simple but can be harder in execution. You don’t need to go anywhere special. You just need to not be confined in your house. Go out and window shop at a store or go out to get food. Just do something. Being stuck in your house and not moving around a lot for too long will add to your depression and make you lose touch with the world around you over time. Make an effort to leave your home a few times a week at the very least. Getting some air and seeing life going on around you can sometimes snap you out of some of your depression at least temporarily.
Choose your entertainment carefully.
If you are having issues with depression, it can be crucial to pay attention to what media you soak in. Avoid things like depressing or aggressive music, sad or violent video media and any images or memes that make light of depression and anxiety. Make an effort to surround yourself with carefully chosen entertainment that promotes positivity and health. You can even limit your intake of media for even better results. Cut down on your television time and read an inspirational book instead or pass on songs with lyrics for some peaceful instrumentals. Limit your social media time to as little as possible to reduce soaking in the drama. It might even be a great time to try something different and more mindful like art or jigsaw puzzles. Changing the type of experiences you soak in while depressed can make a huge difference. You could be taking in a lot more extra stress and negativity than you think from the media you expose yourself to.
Find a buddy.
Depression can be an overwhelming ordeal and it’s important that you have someone you can trust and talk to while you go through it. I don’t mean your therapist in this case. Having a personal contact to reach out to between therapy sessions can make a huge difference. Make sure it’s someone you trust that will actually listen to you. It might also be beneficial to connect to a support group or a peer also dealing with mental illness. Those people will be able to connect to you in a way that is unique to say someone in your family or your therapist. Whatever the case, it’s a huge benefit to identify at least one person other than your therapist that you can open up to and communicate any issues that come up to. Talking about your problems or difficulties is a huge part of healing and can make the weight of your depression just a little lighter, but having a trusted contact is what makes that possible.
Rearrange your furniture.
This, like the smell and sound aspect, is an environmental change. You don’t have to go full on Feng Shui, but sometimes creating a new or more open perspective in your environment can make a difference in how you feel being there. Is your bed facing a wall that you’re sick of looking at? Move it. Is there too much stuff in a room, making it less relaxing? Declutter it. Are your curtains or duvet bumming you out? Change them. Not only is it occupying your mind and distracting you from being depressed, but it will most likely get you up and moving too. A little bit of change can open the path up for a new mindset too.
Watch your money.
Finances can be dicey for the best of us, but when you’re depressed you risk impulse spending to fill a void. The most important thing to remember is that buying stuff won’t fix your depression. No item you can buy will do that, except maybe your medications. Make sure that you consider all purchases made while you’re depressed with a careful eye and responsible mind. Before you buy, make sure it’s something you need and in your means. Make sure you’re able to pay your bills and afford your treatments before buying something extra. Your health and basic expenses should come before any shopping that isn’t a need. Having a clear understanding of your risk for impulse spending is important and could prevent a financial crisis happening in addition to struggling with depression.
Depression can be difficult to cope with, especially when you’re trying to process it being seasonal. Getting the treatment you need is only half the battle. The other half is making a choice of whether you have depression or depression has you. From one survivor to another, I hope this guide can help you get through the upcoming seasons and come out in Spring as wiser,stronger and happier.
If you’d like to learn more about SAD check out the links below:
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