Since I was 15, seasonal depression would hit me hard. Usually right around now, when we move the clocks back and it feels like our days end at 5pm. I would have a harder time waking up, I'd crave a lot more sugar to keep me awake, I wouldn't want to see anyone or do anything (this is especially true after Christmas when it feels like all the joy has been sucked away). It can have a huge impact. AND, there are things we can do to lessen its impact and even prevent it altogether.
I'm hoping to give you something different in this blog. Every year, I see the same 4-5 things recommended for combatting seasonal depression, usually presented in some vague, non-specific way that can make it hard to know where to start. And it's not that those 4-5 things aren't helpful, but there are soooo many other alternatives (which have surprisingly effective results), and that is what I want to bring up here. Things that are accessible, individualized, and can be implemented into your life right now. Not only am I going to explain the specific strategies that will help, but I'm going to explain the why and how behind them.
For those that don’t know, Seasonal Affective Disorder (hilariously, the acronym is SAD), is a condition that fits under the umbrella of Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder, and it affects up to 15% of Canadians in their lifetime. In most people, it occurs in the winter months, but it can also occur in spring/summer. Even the more mild, sub-threshold cases (sometimes called “winter blues” or seasonal depression) can be significantly impactful on your mood or overall functioning.
I want to go on and on about how serious this can be for people, but I know what you're here for. You want cold hard facts. You want the tips. You want the goods. So, without further adieu, backed by clinical experience and empirical research, here are 6 things that you can do RIGHT NOW to prevent seasonal depression (with a few bonus items and debunking some myths at the bottom).
1. Create a "waking up" playlist and play it as soon as you wake up.
There is more and more research around the use of sound and music to help regulate our mood, our mind, and our nervous system. In fact, one of the newest and leading models in the treatment of trauma uses music to "access a physiological state conducive to well-being, positive engagement with others, and growth in learning and therapy" (if you're a therapist, learn more about that protocol here). When I talk about a "waking up playlist", I'm thinking of the songs that you personally love—ones that make you want to sing or dance, ones that bring your energy up, and ones that set your mental and emotional state in a joyful, hopeful, and optimistic state of mind. This GIF of Carleton is what I aim to be every morning.
On mine, some of the songs that really get me geared up for the day are: Move Your Feet (Junior Senior), Can't Hold Us (Macklemore), This Will Be (Natalie Cole), Ooh Ahh (Grits)... Don't ask me why lol, I just know that they set me up for a great day. There are pre-made playlists on Spotify (just search "Wake Up"), if you want an easier option, but I highly recommend curating your own to your own liking; the only requirement is that they get your energy up to help you start the day.
2. Take cold showers (20-60 seconds or more) daily.
I've said it once and I will say it again: cold showers are one of the easiest ways to regulate your mind and mood at a physiological level. A great resource to check out regarding the use of cold exposure if Wim Hof (aka "the Iceman"), whose team has done a massive amount of research on the benefits of exposing yourself to the cold. By engaging in consistent cold showers, you will experience higher levels of energy, improved quality of sleep, more focus, and even symptoms like decreased inflammation, better immune system, and more. ALL OF THAT from only 20 to 60 seconds per day. As a side note, this will also help you feel more prepared for #6.
3. Limit your intake of foods that are prone to energy crashes.
If we remember that some of the key characteristics of seasonal depression include decreased energy, focus, and motivation, then we have to be mindful of the foods that we ingest and how much they energize (or lethargize - wow I just found out that was a word) us. Things that are highly processed or that have high amounts of sugar tend to come with a pretty severe crash afterwards. Now, I'm not saying that you should remove these foods altogether (personally, I wouldn't be able to survive without my sweet desserts), or that these foods are "bad" or "unhealthy". But if we know that we're more susceptible to slumps in energy in alertness (and that these same slumps are partly responsible for us giving up on our activities or other important actions), then we need to make sure that we aren't adding even more slumps to the mix. As a point of comparison, here is a quick list of foods that give you sustained energy.
4. Create your own bedtime routine to help you get to sleep at the same time every night.
One of the major characteristics of seasonal depression (and regular depression) is changes to a person's sleeping patterns—either getting way too much sleep or way too little. An effective way to combat that is to have a bedtime routine that prepares your mind and body for rest. In fact, a general consensus in the education and training of therapists is to assess for sleep hygiene right off the bat; if a client is having major issues with sleep, best practice is to address that issue first. So what could be incorporated in a bedtime routine? For me, it includes: taking my puffer, brushing and flossing my teeth, going to bed with lights off (and no social media in bed), then putting on my sleep/eye mask, and playing soothing ambient sounds on my phone. Some other tasks may include washing your face, reading, meditating... the tasks themselves don't matter a ton (so long as they don't amp you up and increase energy levels), as long as you have consistency in your routine so your mind knows what to expect next (in other words, it prepares you for sleep).
5. Make a promise to yourself to engage in (at least) 1 outdoor activity everyday and commit to maintaining that through the winter months.
I have less evidence to support this, but hear me out. SO MUCH of our lacking motivation in the winter months comes down to this barrier: it's cold out, it's dreary out, I don't like it, I'm staying inside 😅. We need to build our resilience to this. If we let the coldness and darkness control us or restrict us by keeping us inside, then we will inevitably feel less motivated, more hopeless, and more depressed. So whether its a 5-minute walk, 10-minutes of sitting outside, or even 30 seconds of hopping around in the cold before you run back in—we need to get outside and show our mind (and body) that the cold only restricts us if we let it.
6. Invest in therapy.
A lot of people come to therapy in the winter months to gain support, and the specific benefits of it are endless—whether it's to force you to get out of the house, to keep you accountable to your goals, to feel validated around your emotions, to process some deeper stuff that may be coming up, or any number of other things that become especially hard to do on your own. I especially recommend this if you know that you are prone to depressed moods in the winter months. Therapy doesn't have to be forever—it can be whatever you need it to be for a couple months to help you keep your head above water. If you're in Ontario and would like to see if you can work with me (Kaitlin), click here to book a free chat and see if we're a good fit.
As I stated in the beginning, I wanted to give some different, specific strategies here—ones that you might not see or read about on social media or other articles... And, while we're both here, I may as well share some of those more common recommendations for seasonal depression so that you can have all your info in one place.
OTHER STRATEGIES, MYTHS, OR OTHER CONFLICTING-EVIDENCE TREATMENTS
Get your source of sunlight through a sun lamp or light box (evidence supports). Out of all the possible treatments, this is one that has consistently shown a significant impact on the symptoms of seasonal depression. I was skeptical about this myself, and only last year did I purchase my own sun lamp... and let me tell you: it was a game changer. Every morning, as soon as I woke up, I would turn on my sun lamp on my night table and lie there for another 10-15 minutes. I felt more energized and prepared to wake up and start my day. I think I got mine at Costco for
Exercise (evidence supports). Depression is characterized by a "collapse" dorsal vagal response in our nervous system (watch this video here for a great breakdown of our nervous system), and one essential way to upregulate ourselves is to engage in physical activity. This helps connect us to the mobilization zone of our nervous system (in addition to releasing plenty of feel-good neurotransmitters), and it has a huuuuuuuge impact on our mood; the key here is that the improved mood and symptoms will only occur in the long term if we keep it up on a consistent basis.
Vitamin D (lack of evidence). The research around supplementing vitamin D is conflicting. On the one hand, there is consistent evidence which shows that people with depression or SAD have lower levels of vitamin D, but on the flip side, the use of vitamin D as a treatment has not shown any consistent or significant results in improving symptoms of depression. So maybe it works, maybe it doesn't, but we do know that our body synthesizes way less of this vitamin when we have less exposure to sunlight.
Anti-depressants (conflicting evidence). There is mixed research around the effectiveness of antidepressants to treat seasonal depression, in that some medications have no empirical support, and others do; in other words, antidepressants in general haven't shown positive effects, but there are some specific medications that are supported by research. I also bring this point forward with a pretty strong bias against the use of anti-depressants in general—not because they aren't effective for some people, but because I think they are over-prescribed as a first-response to sadness. That being said, Fluoxetine (Prozac) has shown effective results in treating acute SAD, and Bupropion (Wellbutrin) has shown some efficacy in preventing reoccurrences of SAD.
So there it is. 6 ways (plus a few extras that have pros and cons) to keep yourself from experiencing seasonal depression this winter. Remember that no one thing in isolation will be the be-all end-all; it requires a combination of things and a commitment to using them on a daily basis. Which ones are you going to try???
As always, your friendly, honest, neighbourhood psychotherapist,
The Role of Diet, Eating Behavior, and Nutrition: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01451/full
“Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: https://cpa.ca/psychology-works-fact-sheet-seasonal-affective-disorder-depression-with-seasonal-pattern/#:~:text=Approximately%2015%25%20of%20Canadians%20will,at%20risk%20of%20developing%20SAD.
Seasonal Affective Disorder: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/drt/2015/178564/
Seasonal Affective Disorder: Common Questions and Answers https://fmhub.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/seasonal-affective-disorders.pdf
Benefits of a Bedtime Routine in Young Children: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6587181/?ref=ca_blog_kids_01292020&source_code=CANGB1180129200208
Pharmacotherapy and Nutritional Supplements: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14656566.2018.1501359
Exercise as a Treatment For Depression: http://faculty.cas.usf.edu/mbrannick/meta/CMA/Kvam2016ExerciseDepressionMeta.pdf
Sugar Rush or Sugar Crash? https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/134426/1/NeuroBioRev_paper_final_accepted_version_in_press_.pdf
Music-Evoked Emotions: https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(10)00003-3
Cold Therapy: https://www.wimhofmethod.com/cold-therapy