winter blues: ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder

Happy blue Monday, tomorrow! (Sad blue Monday?) 

Blue Monday, the third Monday of January, is said to be the most depressing day of the year. This isn't actual science; the idea was invented by a travel company selling trips to warmer climes. But the reasons behind it: holiday weight gain, post-holiday debt, broken New Year's resolutions, the horrible weather, the lack of sunshine, etc.––they all ring pretty true. (This year, blue Monday also happens to fall on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday; the amount of scary racism in our country is another reason to feel awful.) 

But for me, this general wintertime miserableness lasts much longer than one day, and has another colloquial name: the winter blues. And you guys, I get it bad––every year it gets worse and more debilitating. 

what is SAD? 

SAD is an awesomely appropriate acronym for seasonal affective disorder (also called seasonal depression.) Evidently, some people get it in the spring or summer (which I find hard to imagine) but most of us get it when it gets cold out. To me, it's like a dimmer switch on all of life. 

SAD is probably caused by a lack of Vitamin D, which happens from lack of sunlight in the winter time. It is speculated that it is also caused by disrupted serotonin and melanin levels, which are.... yup, affected by the lack of sunlight. ☀️ Nobody seems to know for sure what exact combination of the above causes it, but I do know that for me, when I am able to travel to somewhere warm and sunny during the winter, soaking up the sun's rays feels like sweet relief. 

Risk factors for SAD include being female (check), living far from the equator (check), having a family history (check), and having an MTHFR gene mutation (check!) 

I found this picture I  posted on Instagram  four years ago, referencing my winter blues that year. 

I found this picture I posted on Instagram four years ago, referencing my winter blues that year. 

my SAD experience 

My own symptoms include feeling deeply depressed about nothing at all, feeling overwhelmed by the smallest things, suffering from ridiculously low energy while at the same time also wanting to be able to do things I can't do, which leads to feeling like a loser for watching life go by while I barely slog through. (The Mayo Clinic has a more comprehensive list of symptoms.)

My own seasonal depression lasts longer and longer every year, but generally runs about mid-December through mid-April. What this means is that for fully 1/3 of the year, every single year, I am trying to operate while feeling like I have thousand-pound weights strapped to every part of my body, in a drunken-haze, in the dark–while the rest of the world seems to carry on as normal. 

I can't even tell you how many times I've begged of my husband and daughter, "How are you okay in this weather? Teach me your tricks!" My struggles with SAD affect my family; I pack up and run away every winter time out of desperation. I'm so blessed to have the resources and the support to be able to escape when I need to. But that's not always possible. 

how to deal with seasonal depression? 

Talk to your doctor, as they say. But below is what works for me––and by 'works' I don't mean 'cures', I mean 'sometimes takes some of the edge off so I can drag my ass through another day.' 😉  

full spectrum lights (aka blue lights) 💡

I don't notice feeling better when I do use these, but I notice feeling worse when I don't. I have several in different places in the house:, including my morning coffee chair and my desk. Point them at your face from the side for 20-30 minutes a day, at minimum. These are especially effective when used first thing in the morning. (The Wirecutter's recommendations for the best SAD therapy lamps are here.)

On the other side of the equation, make absolutely sure you are not using screens in the hour before bedtime, and if you do, buy some nerdy blue-blocker glasses. (At my house, we have this expensive, cute, semi-effective pair, and this nerdy, cheap, super-effective pair.) Also: download the free Flux software onto your computer to appropriately dim your screen, and use the nighttime settings on your phone (you only have to set them once.) 

All of these things will help your body regulate melanin –– you'll get the blue light when you want to feel more awake, and will sleep better when it's time for nighty-night. These strategies offer a helping hand for your physical system. 

saunas + OTHER HEAT 🔥

I hate being cold, and I swear that my body feels it as pain. At least once a week I try to do a sauna until I sweat. Sometimes I do fancy spas, but more often I just go to my local Y and stay for 20-25 minutes until I sweat a ton. I find that this really helps to raise my core temperature.

I am also semi-obsessed with Thermacare heat packs layered on under my clothes on the daily, and with Uniqlo HEATTECH as a thermal layer from top to bottom. 

This isn't my bath (I wish it was!) I can't find the artist, if you know, LMK so I can credit it!)

This isn't my bath (I wish it was!) I can't find the artist, if you know, LMK so I can credit it!)

salt baths 🛀🏾

I m a HUGE fan of salt baths. I use a mixture of epsom salts, pink Himalayan sea salts, and baking soda, to which I add whatever essential oils I am feeling. I put a ton of salts in; usually at least 1-2 cups. I only recently learned the awesome fact that the more salt in your bath, the longer it stays warm. This is a lovely way to raise your core temp while also getting the detox benefits of the salts. Light a candle, read a book, escape the winter. 

good quality Vitamin D + B 12 supplements 💊

I religiously take this Vitamin D/K12 supplement, as recommended to me by my doctor. She has me taking 30 drops every day, which is a lot. For B12, I take a dropper of this liquid once a week for a super-boost, and two of these chewables everyday for daily intake. Buy the best vitamins you can–ask your doctor for her recommendation for you, or give mine a try. (I recommend that you do not buy this kind of stuff on Amazon––the company is notorious among health practitioners for selling knock-offs, expired, and poorly handled versions of expensive supplements. To make sure you're getting the goods, follow links from the manufacturer's own sites.)

meditation 🙏

Even as a meditation teacher, when the weather turns brutal, I am less inclined to do my daily practice sessions. But the truth is, meditation is a practice that helps us relate to our own emotions and circumstances, so it's especially helpful during times of distress. My tips for beginning meditators are here. 

remember: life slows down in the winter ❄️

This is hard to remember in NYC, where we don't see much nature, and the pace is 110% all of the time. (I think New Yorkers probably invented the rat race.) But the natural cycle and rhythms of life are slower, and more turned inward, during colder times. Hibernating can be seen as inappropriate social withdrawal, or it can be seen as completely appropriate self-care. When I don't feel like leaving the house, I try to do my best to treat it as a completely reasonable thing to do when it is -10 degrees out. Because it is! 

self forgiveness 💗

Speaking from experience: it's easy to beat yourself up when you are depressed. But it's also completely unhelpful and a waste of very precious energy. So when I find myself in a shame-spiral, beating myself up for not being able to be a fully functioning human being in the winter time, I try to notice it, name it, and step out of it. It's hard enough without the voice in my head berating me. I might not be able to chose to turn the sun back on full blast, but I can chose to stop being mad at myself for something I can't control. 

less booze 🍸 🚫

Alcohol can be awesome and fun and delicious, but it is also a depressant. I try to be very careful about adding on a depressant onto my depression. In the winter time, I try to lean into night-time tea instead. Besides, half the people I know do "Dry-uary" every January, so it feels pretty easy socially.  

get sun at every opportunity ☀️

Last March (March! that is supposed to be springtime!) I found myself sitting on a bench on the Brooklyn Promenade, in the bitter freezing cold, in the 6 pm pitch dark, so anxious and depressed that I literally could not get myself to my acupuncture appointment. (You know it's tough times when you can't make it to your healer.) I realized that I needed to get the f*ck out of town. My dear husband came to sit with me, and together on that bench overlooking the Hudson River, we booked me a plane ticket to Miami for the next morning. I try to be more proactive than that, but often, I find that life gets in the way, and I end up feeling desperate to run away. If you find yourself feeling this way, GO! Do whatever you have to do to go. Cash in those miles / favors / sick days, and go get you some sun, even if only for a couple of days. Even better, be proactive about it and plan your winter escapes in advance. 

other ways to cope 💬

Consider talking to your doctor about medication and psychotherapy. What works is different for everybody and every body

If if gets really bad, get help 🆘

If you find yourself feeling like you just can't take it, or considering self harm, The Born This Way Foundation has a great list of resources for different kinds of help in the US or the UK; the Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists even more places to contact for help

do you get the "winter blues"? 

I am so sorry. It might seem to be a seasonal funk, but it's actually real depression. It isn't "depression lite," it is "depression specific." If you suffer from depression of any kind, my heart is with you. If you suffer from SAD, I hope that the suggestions above might bring you some measure of relief. 

Further reading: 

How to win at winter when you hate winter (NYT) 

How to reprogram your immune system (By my acupuncturist, Aimée Derbes) 

What is light therapy and does it really work? (Man Repeller)

Have any other coping strategies that work well for you? Share them in the comments below! 👇

Remember: summer will come again. Take good care of yourself. 

Love, Liza

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MADE IN THE SHADE by artist Jessy Nite; part of the Sun Installation Series.  Check her work out! 

MADE IN THE SHADE by artist Jessy Nite; part of the Sun Installation Series. Check her work out!