I grew up in Minnesota. I'm an expert on winter depression. Looking back, I can see that my seasonal depression affected many, many areas of my life. Sorting through old papers, I found a stack of school report cards. The pattern was obvious even then. Each school year I started strong, bottomed out in the middle winter, and then concluded with a last, desperate rally in the spring. Back in my day, we didn't really have a name for all of that. The natural and chemical cures for seasonal depression were pretty limited back then - and, in my family, the need for any kind of that kind of support went unrecognized. If we called it anything, we said that Heidi wasn't "trying hard enough."
It wasn't until I moved to Scotland that I became very conscious of SAD, and very deliberate about the ways in which I dealt with it. Minnesota was cold and dark, but Scotland brought the experience of cold and dark to an entirely new level. In the depths of winter Edinburgh doesn't see the sun rise until 9 a.m. and it begins to set at 3 p.m. On a blustery, rainy day it could feel as if the sun never came out at all. But I still had to go about my business. I had a husband. Graduate school. A job. It was during this time that I tried everything I could possibly think of to help me cope with the winter blues, and during this time that I found several things that seem to help me a great deal. I still use these methods today:
1) Light Therapy.
Light therapy makes an incredible difference. At first you think, I don't need to spend $150 on this thing and then you get so desperate that you do and there's no looking back. If you don't have one - get one. I sit in front of the light box each morning while I'm drinking coffee and I spend about 15 minutes in front of it before I get on with the day. The box in the picture is the one I own but I'm not going to link to it because I think the legs are rickety and, therefore, I don't feel like I want to recommend it. There are lots of them out there but if you're going to get one, get the biggest one you can afford. I cannot vouch for the small desktop versions - maybe someone else can? And don't get confused. The light box is not a tanning booth, and a tanning booth will not give you the anti-depression benefits you are hoping for. It will just give you brown spots and cancer.
Just look how happy that chick in the picture is! But seriously, folks. Go to the gym. Drag yourself there with the promise that you'll sit in the steam room afterward. Whatever it takes. But regular exercise will help your winter depression (and other kinds of depression). Walk the dog in the middle of the day. Find a way to get outside the office at lunch (run errands?)
I know, I know. You can't afford a massage AND a light box. Maybe you can't afford either one. But can you afford to let your life slide into the toilet because you're depressed? No. When you're exhausted, achy, and depressed - a good massage can work wonders.
Aromatherapy is a form of natural support for winter depression. I first learned to use (and blend) essential oils when I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland. I made a version of what I now call Apathy™ Anti-Bad-Mood Spray and used it constantly. My colleagues joked that all the papers coming out of my office were scented with herbs. The product I sell here is a light version - helpful for you but not as intense as my old recipe - and easy to use. No aromatherapy burner required. At $25, the anti-apathy spray is the price of two martinis on South Beach and will last you six months if you use it every day. I spray it into the mist of the shower each morning to sharpen my mind before the work day begins. It's also helpful after lunch or even in the car.
5) Anti-Depressant Medications.
If you are unable to improve your mood with exercise and alternative treatments, don't be afraid to talk to your doctor. If you don't feel comfortable talking to your doctor about depression, find another doctor. It's very, very common and lots of folks are struggling just as you are. You might find a low dose of an anti-depressant very helpful. As the years go by, I think it is harder and harder for many people to rebound from seasonal depression. In the spring you are left with the detrius of SAD - unfinished work, weight gain, whatever - and dealing with that stuff can prolong your suffering and carry over into the spring and summer. Ask yourself if it is worth it, big picture, to cycle through this every year and talk to your doctor about what might be done about it. Untreated depression affects your life on so many levels and has been proven to damage areas of the brain critical for health and well being. A healthy mind is critically important for maintaining lifelong physical health - you don't have to suffer.
6) Do stuff.
Force yourself. I learned this the hard way in Scotland. The Scottish winter will break your heart. You'll be half way to work and it will start to rain (sideways) so hard that your pockets fill with water and your trousers are soaked to the knees. I have hung my socks on the office radiator ALL DAY and still found them damp at 4 p.m. But, on the same token, if you wait for nice weather in Scotland, you'll be waiting forever. Food must be purchased. You have to catch the bus to work. So you get yourself the tools you need (wax jacket, super-powered umbrella, waterproof shoes) and just GO. The same holds true for winter everywhere else. Get what you need to be warm and dry and then get out there. Go to a museum. A movie. Meet friends for dinner. Do something fun in the snow. At least once a week.
I could go on and on. But these are my main strategies for coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. I use my Apathy Anti-Bad-Mood aromatherapy spray every day. And I exercise. And sit in front of my light box. As recently as this morning. What do you do to cope with seasonal depression? I'd love to hear your tips and tricks!