Seasonal Affective Disorder and Self-Care: 6 Tips

As Winter approaches, I am discovering the strength of my relationship with light. Winter is the season of quiet. Leaves have long since fallen from the trees, life is slowing, and the daylight is capped by late and early calls for sleep. While the ground has not yet hardened with cold, I feel the same foreboding that arrives every Winter. I am lost. I am trapped. I must wait, clawing at the ceilings as I search desperately for sunlight.

In Summer, you will find me outside, face upturned during the hottest portion of the day. I will be slick with sweat, itching, but unable to remove myself from my place in the sun. I would climb the sky if I could. My joke is the same each day: My father is Arab. I am of a desert people.

It could be my light sensitivity and high light needs are genetic. What I am dealing with is called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Once the shade is pulled on the sun, the shade is pulled on my life. My energy dissipates, my will is depleted, and my goals are heavily modified so that moving off the couch during a three hour morning block is celebrated as success. My moods begin to shift. I grow quick to anger and feel choked with uncried tears. I want no one to touch me. I want no one to see me. I have no desire to leave my home or interact or seek help for the malaise that claims me.

This year, I am taking a new approach. A friend lent me a SunRay light therapy lamp. I sit near it for a minimum of 15 minutes every morning. I am using liquid D3 daily. Moving around is essential to combating the depression that creeps up with Winter. I am resolved to moving every few minutes, sometimes using the empty cup trick to ensure it happens. It goes like this: I need a hot cup of coffee or tea in my hands at all times to prevent shivering (no, my house is not cold). I have thermal carafes, but I leave them in the kitchen. That way, if I sit down and finish my drink, I have to get up to refill it.

Today, I found myself wandering through imagined Summer. Wrenching myself from that daydream came with a revelation. We keep a space heater in our bathroom. When the chill really settles on Indiana, our bathroom requires extra heat help. This morning, I brought the heater downstairs. With it on High and the sunlamp shining on me, I am almost fooled into feeling Summer in my bones.

Self-care is a tricky issue. Seasonal Affective Disorder can slowly grow into depression. If you have experienced depression, you know the most critical point for practice of self-care is before its mantle is fully settled on your shoulders. This requires a self-consciousness many of us lack in our daily lives. Here are a few tips for staying connected to yourself and stave off the growth of depression during the dark days of Winter:

1. Find a buddy. My husband and I use the buddy system to hold ourselves accountable. I struggle with PTSD. My toddler is going through a hitting phase. Last night I pulled my spouse aside to let him know I am having to work hard to be nonreactive. This benefits us both because he is now aware of the times when I may need extra help, and his knowledge that I may be reactive stops my reactivity. (More on PTSD and reactivity.)

2. Make a list of what you need. What helps you? Is it chocolate? Light? Specific music? It can be incredibly difficult to remember how to help yourself day to day when depression takes hold.

3. Make a list of what to watch for. My friend quits and restarts drinking diet soda more frequently than I can track. Most of the time, the stop and go is inconsequential–maybe she wanted to save a few bucks or forgot to buy soda or was just tired of the routine. However, when she shows frustration that she is back on that wagon, I start looking at her face for bags under her eyes or puffiness. Why? She hits the soda hard when she gets a respiratory infection. That craving is one of her body’s signals that something is off health-wise. Knowing your physical and emotional patterns is invaluable.

4. Give up shame. Shame and depression go hand in hand. Let go. I promised myself when I restarted my writing I would not be held back by shame. You can’t seek out or provide necessary self-care if you are unwilling to accept you need and deserve it. And you do! We all deserve love, especially from ourselves.

5. Speak up. When you need help, ask for it. See the above. Depression is a cage, and you hold the key. You are responsible for your healing, whether that means seeking out a friend or therapist, hitting the gym, scheduling a regular bubble bath or finding the correct medication.

6. Celebrate the small stuff. Give yourself a break. Pat yourself on the back for moving from one couch cushion to the other if it was a difficult feat. Recognize that you are working very hard to make it minute to minute. Be proud you are choosing to do so. Some days I make a list of three things, and if I get one done I give myself a reward (usually a square of chocolate). Don’t beat yourself up afterward, or be sarcastic about it. Be genuine. You accomplished something. I know how hard that can be. Sometimes the small stuff is huge. And the benefits of training yourself to think on the bright side? Endless.

What are your seasonal struggles? What are your favorite self-care methods?

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

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