Monday, December 1, 2014

For when you’re feeling SAD: beating seasonal depression

Liz: Ugh, I hate January. It's dark and freezing and everyone's wearing bulky coats, so you can do some serious subway flirting before you realize the guy is homeless. Work is awful. Everyone's snippy and tense.

Jack: Well, the lack of sun makes people depressed. It's called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Liz: Oh, is that where the word ''sad'' comes from?

Jack: What? You think ''sad'' is an acronym invented by psychologists?– 30 Rock

I admittedly feel a little dirty writing this post. It’s the first of December but I’m sitting in running shorts and a tank top and it’s an egregious sixty-nine degrees here in the fair city of Atlanta. I’m not sure who forgot to remind the state of Georgia that winter is supposed to be accompanied by colder weather, but aside from our one week winter where the temperatures actually got below forty degrees, it’s been frustratingly warm in the South.  

Unfortunately, that warmth hasn’t been accompanied by sun, and along with the confusion I’m currently feeling while listening to a musical quartet play the Nutcracker suite in our student center while I’m dressed for summer, recently I’ve been feeling down.

This happens every year and not just to me. While four-six percent of people with chronic depression experience worse symptoms and stronger relapses in the winter, an additional twenty percent of the population will go through a winter-specific form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In the United States, your risk of SAD also increases with your latitude, and people who live in Northern states may even see rates as high as 30% of their state populations becoming depressed in the winter. As someone with generally depressive tendencies, I’m not sure which of those statistics I fall into, but I can tell you that regardless of whether your depression is chronic or seasonal, it’s always unpleasant.

And that’s quite the understatement.

Particularly for students, the winter months can be a stressful time and adding the apathy and lethargy that comes with being depressed can make even the most motivated student shy away from his/her schoolwork and commitments. For me, these next few months involve final exams, formal sorority recruitment (a stressor if there ever was one), and a lot of big decisions about my major, where I’ll live next year, whether I want to go abroad, what I want to do over the summer, and whatever it is that I want to do with my life.

That last one might have been a little dramatic… but still. The point is that winter is demanding and depression can strongly hinder your ability to meet the demands you and others place on yourself. I’ve recently been struggling to find the motivation to attend all my classes, make social plans, and maintain my basic routines such as going to the gym, eating healthily, and even keeping up necessary cleanliness (what even is laundry?).

However, the good news for me (and hopefully for you) is that there are some great ways to help fight off the winter blues. While some of these tips work year-round, I find that the winter months also provide unique opportunities to combat depression despite the lack of sunlight to boost your mood. Here are my top three tips for making it through the winter.

1.       Spend time with family. With the winter months also comes winter break, the holidays, and an increase in time to spend with loved ones, family, and friends. Take advantage of it: social support and interaction can be one of the most important sources of care for someone fighting depression. Whether it’s going to holiday parties with friends, catching up with family members from out of town, or just kicking back with the family, make sure to connect with others and take the opportunity to appreciate and cherish your loved ones. Also don’t be afraid to talk to someone you trust about what you’re feeling. Holidays can come with a lot of pressure to feel happy, but they’re also sometimes stressful and saddening for all of us. You’re not alone. Reach out, make contact, and (if you’re the hugging type – I certainly am!) fit in a few more hugs or cuddling sessions than you normally do. It’s cold! The extra cuddling is totally called for and science says it can give you an emotional boost.
2.       Get pumped for the Holidays. I went through a miserly period of hating holidays and reacting with indignation to their consumerist, commodified, saccharine flare. And then I got over it. Even if it’s dominated by corporate interests, material displays of affection, and disgusting eggnog products, the holidays are great. Let your inner activist guard down for just a hot second. The holidays are also about giving, kindness, family, community, and taking time out of our busy lives to experience the gratitude and love we often lose the time for. Even if the sight of Starbucks holiday cups make you want to pick up your picket signs, there’s so much merriness to find in holiday celebrations that overlooking it entirely will cause you to miss a great opportunity to fight off your negative emotions. Get excited – it’s Christmas/Hanukah/(insert all other necessary politically correct holidays here)! I love to get in the holiday spirit by drinking hot chocolate, listening to Christmas tunes while I walk around campus, hanging up lights in my room, and wearing Christmas socks. While the idea of an eight a.m. multivariable class certainly hasn’t made it easier to get out of bed recently, rolling in with cool Christmas socks definitely has. It can really be the little things that restore your spirits. Even if it’s small, do something to get yourself in the holiday spirit.
3.       Exercise. This one is big. For me, as soon as it gets cold, the walk to the gym suddenly feels like an epic quest, and one I gradually begin to make less often. But of all the things you can do to beat depression, I’ve found that consistent exercise can be one of the most effective things I’ve ever tried. If you live somewhere with snow, try skiing, snowshoeing (my favorite), cross country skiing, or even just romping through the snow with a pet or a friend. Sledding, ice-skating, and just shoveling the driveway (ugh) are also great ways of getting in some endorphin-boosting activity. Stuck in the warmer weather states like me? Stick to your normal routine or make one if you don’t already have an exercise plan. Even if it’s just twenty minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise three times a week, you’ll be amazed what a difference physical activity can make. Besides, the more cardio, the more gingerbread cookies you can eat without guilt.

…Not that guilt’s ever stopped me.

Good luck to everyone struggling in these winter months and remember you’re not alone. These are just some fun suggestions that help me make it through the day in the winter, but if you find that your depression (seasonal or other) is preventing you from partaking in life the way you want to, don’t be afraid to get more serious help. Depression is a horrible and common mental illness that’s completely treatable, and with the right help, can be managed in a way that prevents it from interfering with your life. For more information and resources you can visit the National Alliance on Mental Health’s website. They have tons of great information and resources.

Wishing you all happy, depression-free, holidays.

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