How I’m Tackling Seasonal Depression This Year

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

The high temperatures this week have dipped back into the mid-70s. The kids need long sleeve shirts when we head outside at 8 am. It begins.

Cool fall breezes will return. And so will my seasonal depression.

This isn’t news for me. I remember carefully timing my nightly Benadryl throughout my senior year of high school. Too late and you’ll fall asleep during English tomorrow morning. Too early and you might fight it, leading to that anxiety that no one talks about. Without that tiny, inexpensive, pink pill, I wouldn’t sleep. Somehow I was utterly drained throughout the day and racked with insomnia at night. I’m lucky one solitary Benadryl did the job.

That was ten years ago, and it wasn’t the first time I’d recognized the cycles of my moods. The spring thaw would fill me with a renewed sense of hope, in summer electric energy would course through my veins, fall would comfort me with warm scarves and hot drinks, and winter would change me to the human embodiment of depression.

In college, this cycle landed me with a Bipolar Disorder diagnosis and a hefty bag of sample drugs.

Each year, I anticipate this shift. I feel it coming. I enjoy the chilly weather but know what lurks around the corner. And do you know what I do to mitigate the damage? Not a damn thing.

Some irrational voice in my head tells me that maybe I won’t be sad this year. I’m stronger, I won’t get depressed. Which is just utterly ridiculous. Strength means nothing without intentional efforts.

This is the year that I become a proactive participant in battling my depression.

The Depression Toolkit

Towards the end of my college mental-health journey, I was paired with a therapist in the substance-abuse clinic. I didn’t have any substance issues, but the opportunity was presented to me somewhat under-the-table. I had free student access to a group of counselors who felt I needed more long-term therapy. When I continued to show up at their office in moments of crisis, they told me of a man whom they thought could help me.

I was broken. What other choice did I have?

I made my way to the substance-abuse center with a vague sense of hope. My first time seeing a counselor had been when I was seven. Of the ten or more I’d seen since then, I had never really felt a connection. No one offered the life-changing insight I was always seeking.

During our first visit, my new therapist told me that he also had Bipolar Disorder. I didn’t think much of his statement at the time. I felt the label they’d stuck on my chart after my first one-hour appointment was wrong from the beginning. I didn’t recognize that I was talking to someone who’d dealt with his own darkness, but was functioning and helping other people through theirs.

It didn’t matter if his diagnosis was or wasn’t the same as mine, it mattered that he was mentally ill and offered a level of understanding that no one else had.

He went on to tell me about what he described as a mental health toolkit. The basic premise was that I needed to identify activities, tools, etc. that help me combat depression and anxiety. Then, I would need to become skilled at recognizing the early signs of a panic attack or depressive episode and utilize my “tools” as quickly as possible.

It has now been six years since I met him, and I’ve continued to hone my toolkit and trigger-identifying skills. A panic attack calls for lavender tea, chamomile essential oils, and my favorite blanket. Depression has its own list of tools that I will further delve into later on in this story.

Prevention or Treatment

In my years of battling seasonal depression, I’ve never been proactive. And, to be honest, that’s what the toolkit mentality lacks. You wait for signs of depression or anxiety before you begin negating them. We know that prevention is more effective in nearly every area of life. Preventing a cold is better than fighting one. Preventing a toddler meltdown is better than recovering from one.

Prevention is what I’ve always been missing. But what if my toolbox can also be used to dissuade depression from settling into my bones in the first place?

Light

We know that light therapy is incredibly powerful in treating seasonal depression. I’m not presenting anything unique or groundbreaking here. Despite knowing that light treatment is successful in treating seasonal depression, I never bothered looking into therapy lamps.

Anything proven to treat depression in the United States is bound to be astronomically expensive, right?

Not exactly. Verywell Mind lists its top 8 therapy lamps with the most budget-friendly option costing only $39! Guys, that’s cheaper than a month’s supply of Abilify with the savings coupon they handed out back in 2011.

I haven’t settled on a unit yet, but I will be investing in a therapy light to test out this winter.

Just Dance

Dancing is another one of those (mostly) universally sound recommendations. Most of us know that active movement is good for our bodies and minds. Getting your heart rate up encourages your brain to release feel-good chemicals, which are exactly what you need whenever you haven’t showered in three days.

And, hey, blasting your favorite music never hurts either, right?

I am lucky that I have two tiny humans who are eager to have a spur of the moment dance party with me. For several years now I’ve used the power of dance to offer an energy boost in the darker months of the year, and I’ll be making an effort to crank the Bluetooth speaker a little more often this time around.

Supplements

At the end of this article, I’ll warn you to discuss your strategies with a doctor before making changes. I gotta, right? But I want to take a quick moment to stress the importance of working with a doctor before starting nutritional supplements.

Taking too much of a supplement can create a totally different set of problems. Furthermore, the wrong form of a supplement might not work well for you.

Because supplementation is such an incredibly personal and unique practice, I won’t delve into this strategy much. I’ve worked with a doctor to decide what supplements will benefit me, and if you want to try supplementation, you should talk to a doctor too.

Food

At the risk of sounding cliche, they say that food is the best medicine. For me, what I don’t eat has been more impactful than what I do eat.

In 2013 my husband and I drastically cut our daily sugar intake. No more double mocha frappes from Starbucks. No more half-dozen boxes of cream-filled donuts. We know that sugar causes surges and drops in energy levels, and when you’re low on energy, your ability to emotionally regulate plummets as well.

Now, I don’t cut sugar out entirely. I know a lot of people do and rave about the health benefits they reap as a result. But I like sugar, and I just don’t wanna.

Being aware of my sugar intake and going for savory treats more often than not works well enough for me.

Winter Gear

Finally, we intend to invest in some more appropriate winter clothing this year. We live in a relatively flat state with windchills dropping into the -30s. That anorak jacket I got for $10 from H&M last fall doesn’t cut it.

Furthermore, have you ever dressed small children to go out into the cold? It is a miserable process for everyone involved.

Pinning my kids down to put on 3 layers of pants, 3 shirts, a coat, gloves, socks, boots, and a hat for them to stay outside for 10 minutes is not what anyone calls a good time.

I hope that investing a little more in some good winter clothes will translate into slightly longer stints in the great outdoors. Fresh air never hurt anyone. Plus, someone needs to cart food and fresh water out for the chickens, and I think it probably needs to be my oldest.

What will you put in your toolkit?

The thing about the depression toolkit is that I can’t craft yours for you. You have to take time to consider what things lift you or, at a minimum, help you survive when things look bleak.

You might notice that antidepressants are nowhere to e found on my list. Again, treating depression is such a deeply personal process. I’ve tried many antidepressants over the years, and I’ve never found a good fit. But I have many close friends and family members who live much happier lives thanks to a small pill each morning.

While antidepressants don’t make their way into my toolkit, they might fit nicely into yours.

Whatever seasonal depression looks like for you, I bet a proactive approach can soften the blow. If you, like me, have focused on treatment instead of prevention, I ask you to change your tactics with me.

This year, let’s try and sidestep the hole instead of digging our way back out.

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