A Guide To Overcoming Seasonal Depression
It’s the most miserable time of the year! But should it be? (Sung, of course, to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”)
Before we can get started, it’s important to note: this article is based on my personal account of overcoming seasonal depression. As Tim Ferriss might say, “I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on the internet.” What’s in this article may or may not work for you. Please do not take my words as biblical or universally true.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve experienced seasonal depression. Often called “SAD” (how fitting).
All winter long, I’d watch episodes of The O.C. and Laguna Beach to get a taste of what winter in a warm place might feel like. I’d go to bed at 7 pm actually thinking to myself, “the sooner I go to bed, the sooner spring comes.”
I’ve carried these behaviors into adulthood. Though The O.C. has turned to Madam Secretary. And Laguna Beach has turned to real documentaries.
Two and a half years ago, I moved to Los Angeles with the belief that I’d never to move back “here” (“here” being any place with a particularly miserable winter). My winters in Los Angeles have been glorious. The temperature never drops below 40 degrees and I can always run outside.
This winter, however, as a result of some personal stuff, I’ve found myself back in Boston, where the current temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit, negative 6 degrees if you count the windchill.
I don’t want to go outside or do anything.
[Side note: I’m grateful and humbled that I’m sitting at a desk in a warm AirBnb writing this to you now. I know there are people all over the country (and the world) who aren’t nearly this blessed, who are seeking shelter in subway stations, homeless shelters, and public bathrooms away from life-threatening temperatures and conditions. My heart is with these people who are praying, like I am, for warmer weather.]
I’m not sure I know a better description of seasonal depression than this one:
It is avoidance of the present moment, prayer for some conditional future.
It isn’t a survival problem as many of our friends experiencing homelessness are facing. But it is a real (and substantial) problem because it prevents an estimated 3+ million people every year from truly living during the months of November — March.
That’s so much brain power, human power really, that could easily be deployed to solve the homelessness and mental health crises we face. And it’s just being wasted away.
In the last few years, I’ve experienced depression for varying periods in varying degrees. Not just the seasonal kind, either. I’ve dealt with what psychologists call “the grief exception” which is the period of depression that follows an intense loss. As a result, I’ve also experienced crippling social anxiety, and at one point even submitted to a life of introversion and loneliness.
These have been the darkest years of my life, also the most profound.
I often think depression and grief are one and the same. Depression is essentially grief for a life unlived, for a life that’s been buried by unexpected loss, changes in circumstance, and the mundanity of existence.
The creator of the famous 5 Stages of Grief, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, even called depression “the common cold of mental illnesses.”
She said, and I think she’s right, that we all go through a period of depression at one time or another. Some of us will go through more than others.
Lately, I’ve been grieving the life I thought I’d be living when I was 26. The life I’d have had if my mom had stayed alive, if my boss hadn’t done that thing, if my dad had been faithful, if I’d just committed to a damn career already.
I‘m still fighting to let go of these expectations, to finish grieving that buried life, and more than anything to live presently on the path I’m on.
In his best-selling book, Lost Connections, journalist Johann Hari discusses what he believes (after interviewing 200+ people) are the core causes of depression. [You can read an excerpt here.] As the title suggests, Hari believes that the core pillars of depression (and anxiety) stem from a lack of connection to seven different things:
- Meaningful Values
- A Hopeful and Secure Future
- Other People
- Meaningful Work
- Childhood Trauma
- Status and Respect
- Natural World
- + bonus coverage of “The Real Role of Genes and Brain Changes”
Now, of course, there is a difference between seasonal depression and clinical depression. A critical difference in diagnosis and treatment from a medical perspective — including potentially, the enlistment of antidepressants.
It’s important to note that Hari is writing about is the clinical kind, and here, I am writing (mostly) about the seasonal kind.
But having experienced both kinds of depression, I can tell you firsthand that they feel the same. And for our purposes, it’s the feeling that matters.
Because it’s the feeling that we want to change.
Both seasonal and clinical depression are equally as covert and nasty. They conduct a coup so quickly you don’t even notice and, THEN, they trick you into thinking it is your fault and keep you bound up in the dark.
This is what makes them so difficult to diagnose.
In the psych community, there has been a lot of disagreement over the causes and treatments of depression and anxiety.
Even Hari’s work (outlined above) is up for massive debate. Some psychologists and journalists have criticized it as the false simplification of a complex issue, of a non-medical analysis of a medical issue.
Whatever the case may be, we need practical solutions. Fast.
And I’ve found (for myself) that Hari’s book has some effective tips and tricks, for clinical and seasonal depression. It may not be peer-review quality, but it is a book about empowering us to take control of our own lives, rather than submitting to the belief that our brains are just irrevocably “broken.”
When you are feeling deeply depressed, you don’t have the time to wait around for someone to discover the perfect solution to your problem.
You just need it solved yesterday.
That’s why I suggest trying everything you can and building a toolkit made up of the most effective strategies you’ve found. If you have a hope of overcoming the darkness and living in the light of day, you need a reliable set of tools to lean on.
You’re the only one that can find those.
But, where do you start? Luckily most psychologists agree on what’s called the “PSYCHO-BIO-SOCIAL” model in treating depression (including seasonal depression) and anxiety. You can think of it as a three-legged stool. Your mind, body, and environment all play a critical role in how you feel about yourself, about life in general.
This is why, in conversations about how to treat depression and anxiety, you often hear the mention of exercise, isolation, social stigma, healthy eating, and neurochemicals (such as serotonin). Medical practitioners are trying to balance the three-legged stool for patients while attempting to figure out which is the lead domino: psych, bio, or social?
Will a pill solve it? Will HIIT workouts help? Will forced social interaction reverse the curse?
You can’t know, necessarily. Until you try.
Another critical thing to note is that depression and anxiety tend to come hand in hand.
As one increases, so does the other. That is, as you start to feel crappy in general, you start to feel stressed and overwhelmed. You stop doing the things that would make you feel better — like engage with your work, hang out with friends, and exercise.
You might even draw back from social engagements and begin to isolate yourself. You all but stop connecting.
This only drives you into further depression.
You begin to feel unworthy of doing anything. Simple things — like going to a coffee shop to read for the afternoon — feel like they would take a marathon worth of effort. I mean, it’s so darn cold…
You begin overcalculating every little step, or as Tony Robbins might say, “over-chunking.” Instead of seeing the trip to the coffee shop as a simple endeavor in which you “just do it” (swoosh), your pea brain starts listing out all the steps it will take:
First, I have to shower. Then I have to get dressed. I’m not sure what to wear since I haven’t done laundry in a week. Then, I’m gonna have to wait for my hair to dry because it’s so freaking cold out. Then, ugh, I’m going to need find my jacket and gloves, and pack my bag, head all the way down the stairs just to find that my car is covered in ice. My stupid little scraper thingy barely scrapes, so I’m gonna have to wait for the car to heat up which means I’m going to be freezing my butt off for like 15 minutes. Then, I’m going to give up my parking spot and have to find a new one? During a winter parking nightmare? U crazy? Maybe I should just walk. No, it’s too cold for that shit and my boots are too big. Maybe I can just Uber there. That’ll work. But then again, no. That’ll cost like $7 here and $7 back and I just don’t know if that’s worth it. So, you know what. Maybe I’ll just stay here, watch YouTube videos, and wait for spring…
That’s better, you think. Easy decisions = easy life. Yeah, sure.
Soon, everything spirals out of control.
In the winter time, the days are shorter. If you work a “standard” 10-hour work day, the sun can rise and set without you ever noticing. It’s often cloudier on average during the winter. It’s also colder, so we want to spend less time outside.
Unless you are an avid snowshoer, skier, snowboarder, or winter cross country runner, you probably aren’t getting the time in nature you need to feel alive and well.
You also probably aren’t hanging out with people as much as you would in July or really investing in your career because you are so darn tired. You are quickly becoming more and more disconnected from the world around you.
Then, one day, you realize you’ve started saying “no” to your whole freaking life just because it’s winter or because you don’t “feel” like doing things.
The whole, “hell yes or hell no” phenomenon is brilliant for people with packed schedules and fulfilled dreams, but for the rest of us, it’s an excuse to stop doing anything (especially when it’s cold and snowy). It’s an excuse to say “no” to engagements out of fear and sloth.
And let’s be real here. This is bullshit. Cold weather is not a good excuse to put your life on hold, to let your fears take the wheel.
If you want to be happy, if you want to be successful, you need to say “YES” to the hard things.
That means — yes — even in the wintertime. Even when you’re tired. Even when you are broke. Even when you feel like life is collapsing all around you. Even when the wind is whipping. Even when you are feeling depressed.
Just. Say. Yes.
Our social, work, ethical, and love muscles atrophy just like any real muscle. If you don’t use them, they become incapacitated pretty quickly.
That’s what you’re doing when you choose to curl up and watch Netflix instead of get out there and create, get out there and ski a double-black, get out there and live.
You're letting the key components of your humanness disintegrate in the routine of daily, dreary life.
Now, look, I don’t want to tell you how to live your life.
It’s your choice what you do:
You can live your life hoping that winter will end or you can learn to appreciate the season for what it is.
And I get that this ultimatum isn’t cool (pun definitely intended). This winter, I’ve been super depressed. I’ve reconnected with my 16-year-old self who wanted to stay trapped in her dark bedroom all winter.
Plus, there’s been a lot of stuff going on in my life that is, well, less than ideal. Some key relationships in my life have split off, and I’ve had to make some hard decisions about my life.
This article is as much a pump up and reminder for me as I hope it is for you.
I realized last week just how bad things had gotten (again). It’s only January and set to be freezing cold here for a few more months. So, I decided it was time to make a radical change.
In the last week, that’s what I’ve done. And I’ve drastically improved how I feel, even substantially increased the revenue in my business.
This is all the result of prioritizing my mental health.
If you are struggling today with seasonal depression (or any kind for that matter), know I’m here for you. I get you; I get this. I do.
You are not alone.
And I don’t want you waiting for the end of winter to start your life all over again.
So here are some suggestions for how you can begin to drastically transform the way you feel in the remaining weeks of winter, and potentially pull yourself out of a mid-winter slump. This is what I’ve done and I hope it works for you:
- Change up your routine. Part of what happens during winter is that we become even more routined. Not always in good ways. We go to work, come home, and cuddle up with Netflix and a cup of tea (or wine, pick your poison). Just doing something different one night per week can help pull you out of your rut.
- When there’s sunshine, let it in. Yesterday, I realized I’ve been working out of an office that had zero natural light for the last few weeks. [Don’t ask why it took so long to realize this.] It could be 2 pm and I’d have no idea what the weather was or even what time it was other than looking at my phone.
- Supplement with Vitamin D. Again, I’m not a doctor. I have no idea what this really does for you other than what everyone knows. We get Vitamin D from the sun. Without natural sun on our bare skin all the time, we aren’t getting the necessary dosage. Here’s some more info on that. [But between you and me — even if it’s just a placebo and it works, who cares?]
- Eat seasonal foods. There’s a reason your body craves lighter foods like watermelon and berries in the summer, darker meat and root vegetables in the winter. Listen to what your body is asking. Hidden in your biology are the secrets to success at life.
- Do the social version of what you’re already doing. If you are working out, try going to workout classes. If you are reading all the time, try joining a book club. If you’ve been binging a show on Netflix, invite some friends over to join. If you drive alone, consider finding a buddy or using a rideshare service. Try “analog social media.”
- Shut off your devices. When it’s really nice out, I’m not as hooked on my computer or phone. I’m more likely to disconnect. This is equally important during the winter, but because we spend so much time indoors, seems much harder. At the very least, make sure you are without connectivity a few 3-hour long blocks per week.
- Learn a new skill. I really, really, really want to start making videos. In the past, I’ve been part of the production of a few short documentaries and loved it SO much. I’ve been using Skillshare to learn the basic elements of this skill (it’s free for the first 2 months) and this has given me an extra boost in creativity.
- Schedule the connection activities first. I just decided that I’m going to try to host a dinner party at least once per week. I love having people over, eating food, and just talking. But without that degree of accountability, I’ll put off connecting with people because I’m usually feeling lazy and tired in the evenings. I’ve realized I have to put social stuff on the calendar just like any work engagement.
- Move. Yesterday, I literally moved homes. I carried countless boxes and bags up four flights of stairs (not because I’m a hoarder, but because my girlfriend has too many shoes). I realized that, because I write for a living, I’m barely ever moving unless I’m consciously exercising. This is not good. When I went to bed last night, I was actually tired. It was glorious. Today, I’m trying to move it, move it (my body, not my life). Also, exercise. Need I say more?
- Be open and honest. Seasonal depression (and depression in general) is considered very common. More likely than not, someone you know is experiencing symptoms of the same thing. Sharing the experience with someone will help improve your situation dramatically. And no, you won’t be a burden. If you don’t have someone you’re comfortable talking to, talk to me. I’m here for you.
Bonuses: watch your caffeine consumption (it’s a crutch, not a solution), journal out your feelings more, meditate 15 minutes per day, bundle up and get outside when you can, find an accountability buddy, see a real psychologist to confirm the seasonal nature of your condition, take a freaking bath, book a trip someplace warm, schedule something to look forward to.
In the winter, our social and emotional muscles take extra effort to upkeep. Your two-million-year-old brain that’s wired for survival, not happiness (what an ugly walnut) — experiencing more lethargy than normal — takes more energy and effort to override.
The truth is:
It is the very things that you don’t want to do that you must do.
I urge you to start with the list above and then come back and share what did and didn’t work for you.
The number one thing I don’t want is for you to read this article, feel slightly validated and inspired, and then slip right back into your same pattern.
The reality is, you can’t wait to feel inspired. You can wait for spring to keep your life moving forward.
There’s a brilliant paper called “The Ideal Road Not Taken” by researchers out of Cornell (you can watch a short video about it here). Researchers found that one of the reasons people didn’t achieve their goals (and become their “ideal selves”) was because they waited to feel inspired.
How long have you been waiting to feel inspired?
How long are you willing to wait to start achieving your dreams?
Until winter ends? Until you are really feeling it? Until you meet the right business partner? Until a someone close to you dies?
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing now.
Use the rest of this winter to GET AFTER IT.
It’s an opportunity to grow, become, and learn.
Commit to something right now and write it down below.