Overcoming Seasonal Depression

Seasonal Depression 1.JPG

Disclaimer: this is the story of my personal experience with seasonal depression. I hope the story inspires you in some way, but it’s not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical or mental health condition.

It was a biting-cold February day in Brooklyn. I was holed up at a coffee shop eager to check tasks off my to do list, but my plans slowly devolved into scrolling through Facebook – and feeling increasingly down. I eventually felt so unsettled that I called the work session a day and stepped outside to head home.

The two-block journey home somehow felt too much. A block in, I sat down on a neighbor’s stoop to collect myself and felt the tears welling up. I’m really sad. I think I’m depressed, I texted my boyfriend. Once the words rolled off my tongue (or rather my keyboard), I felt a bit of peace.

That day was a turning point. I recognized that my sadness had moved beyond a rough patch and crossed, for the first time, into depression-symptom territory (not clinical depression).

It was scary. While part of me secretly wondered if I’d ever feel better, the rest of me had a hunch there might be lifestyle steps I could take to improve my situation going forward.

Looking retrospectively at the prior months, I figured my symptoms had developed from a combination of seasonal depression, a disrupted body block (aka circadian rhythm), low vitamin D levels, and financial stress.

I took some radical, and some smaller, measures to hedge against each of these issues for a full year.

So it was a pretty cool feeling the next winter when I realized my seasonal sadness was a mere fraction of what it had been the prior year. I went through that second winter mostly confident, happy, and at peace.

Here’s what helped me identify the problems and what I did to *mostly* solve them.

The symptoms

There were a few red flags that something was off.

For one, when I’d wake up each morning, a wave of sadness would wash over me. This was distinct from anything I’d previously experienced and made me wonder if my sleep/wake cycle relative to the light/dark hours of the day was disrupted. Disrupted circadian rhythms can contribute to symptoms of depression.

Also, I realized I’d been spending 95% of the day inside and so I wasn’t getting much sunlight exposure to promote a healthier circadian rhythm. Since sun exposure only helps boost vitamin D when the UV index is three or higher, and I live far north of the equator, the little sun I did get during the long stretch of winter probably wasn’t helping me achieve adequate vitamin D levels.

I hadn’t gotten blood work done to check my vitamin D levels or supplemented with vitamin D in a while (I’m skeptical of supplements), so I assumed it was possible that my levels were low.

But here’s what really tipped me off to the fact that I’d been seasonally depressed: once the sunnier weather kicked in, which it did pretty suddenly, I felt like a new person within a matter of days. The contrast was striking and a good reminder that often we don’t know how good we can feel until something changes that allows us to see the difference.

Lastly, there was the personal side of the equation. I was early on in my business and money was extremely tight. I’m sure many of you can relate. This significant life stress – in my case, financial – made it harder to overcome the other issues.

Winter prep begins now

This might sound a little crazy, but I began prepping for the following winter during spring 😂. My symptoms and stressors didn’t appear overnight so they probably weren’t going to be solved overnight either. And I didn’t want to take chances.

Long story short, the following measures mostly cleared my symptoms. When the weather turned sunny the following spring, I felt like the same person I’d been all winter – happy but human, relatively joyful, and excited about the results.

Measure #1: bundle up and sit in the sunlight

To cue my body that it was daytime and to try to correct my sleep/wake cycles, I’d throw on my puffer coat, grab my laptop, and spend time outside in the sunlight. Most days, I’d do an hour. It was very cold and very worth it.

I obviously can’t say for sure, but I have a strong feeling that being surrounded by sunlight for an hour almost every day of winter played a big role in my positive mental health.

Measure #2: vitamin D supplementation

After that teary day on the stoop, I got blood work done to check my vitamin D levels and found out that they were, indeed, low. Depression symptoms are common in people with inadequate vitamin D levels. (FYI, the test that gets a better gauge on vitamin D levels is called “vitamin D 25-hydroxy,” not “vitamin D.” “Vitamin D” is a different, less helpful test.)

I started supplementing immediately with the goal of bumping myself into a healthier range before winter hit again. My levels are now back in an adequate range and to maintain them, I typically supplement about three times a week with a high quality brand of vitamin D (rather than whatever is cheapest at the drugstore – think whole, organic food vs. processed food) and I plan to retest my levels yearly. (Again, this is my routine and is not intended as a recommendation – consult with your doctor before starting any supplements.)

Measure #3: prioritize sleep

In the months after I recognized the depression symptoms, good sleep became a top priority to help correct my body clock and decrease stress. Sleep is always really important, but since all other areas of my life were being negatively affected by these issues, it temporarily got bumped to the very top.

Prioritizing sleep looked like:

  • Getting off my phone leading up to bedtime

  • Meditating regularly, even if it was just for five minutes, so I could fall asleep quickly (regular meditation, no matter what time of day I do it, helps me fall asleep more quickly at night)

  • Hydrating early in the day so I didn’t have to get up to use the bathroom

  • Going to bed as close to sundown as possible (yes, really)

  • Giving myself grace if I needed to sleep longer.

Other areas of life temporarily had to give, but it was well worth it.

Measure #4: lift weights

Exercise, especially lifting, is important for my mental health year-round, including in winter. Even when it was cold or rainy or snowy, I’d go to the gym four days a week. Some days I’d lift for 30 minutes, some for an hour. The important part was getting in the zone and moving my body to process any challenges or stressors.

Lessons along the way

If I had to say what I took away from the process, it’d be this: go be weird if it means taking care of your health. When I’d step outside in my winter gear to sit in sub-30 degree weather – or went to bed at 9:30pm – I often felt different from other people. But it was good practice advocating for myself and now, those habits have become a source of joy. They’re all still a part of my routine as maintenance, since I don’t ever want to play catch up again if I can help it.

I’d also say:

  1. Don’t forget to spend time in the sun. Your body needs those proper cues that it’s daylight!

  2. Sleep rhythms have a profound effect on your mental health. Maintaining a natural sleep rhythm is worth it.

  3. Know your vitamin D levels. Deficiencies can make you feel terrible, but it’s not “you” per se – it’s a physical need that’s not being met.

How do you cope with seasonal depression? Leave a comment and let me know!

References:

  1. Disrupted circadian rhythms are linked to depression:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2612129/

  2. Sun exposure helps increase vitamin D when the UV index is three or higher

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3356951/

  3. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to feelings of depression:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908269/

    https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/time-for-more-vitamin-d

  4. Vitamin D levels are best determined by the measure of 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration in the blood:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2912737/

  5. A useful introduction to seasonal affective disorder:

    https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml