The Darkest Days

The last few weeks have been tough for me. I’ve been tired; I haven’t had much energy; I’ve had a resurgence of depression and anxiety symptoms. It’s been hard for me to motivate myself to get much done outside of the bare minimum, and I haven’t always been able to tell if that lack of motivation is due to exhaustion or depression.

Why is this happening? I asked myself a couple of weeks into my slump. Everything in my life was going well. I have a good job I enjoy, a pleasant home, supportive family and friends. I have a lot to look forward to in my life, and for the most part, not a lot of significant trials that would make it hard to be content. So why, I wondered, was I feeling so down?

It took a few weeks to make the connection, but one day, it occurred to me: I felt the same way last year too. The end of January and most of February were hard months, tired months, low-motivation months. And what’s more, other people I talked to were mentioning similar things about their own experiences during these months. “January is always a hard month for me.” “I just can’t wait until March. It’s always a lot easier to cope in March.” “I feel like this month has lasted FOREVER!”

So what’s the deal with January and February? I can’t speak for everyone on this, but I think I’ve figured out why these months are so difficult for me: in a nutshell, I’m SAD.

Winter blues? Or something more?

No, I don’t mean I just feel sad—although I’ve definitely experienced a lot more sadness than usual over the last six weeks or so. SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that tends to affects people during fall and winter—and the most difficult months for people experiencing SAD are January and February.

The primary cause of SAD is the lack of sunlight in winter. Between fall and winter, the days get increasingly shorter—and, therefore, we spend an increasingly greater proportion of our time in darkness. On top of that, it’s usually cold outside, so even when the sun is up, many of us don’t tend to go outside as much as we would in the warmer weather of spring or summer.

As a result, we don’t get as much sunlight during these months. Our brain chemistry gets out of whack, our internal biological clocks get out of sync, and we feel sad, tired, and demotivated. We have trouble concentrating and making decisions. And, in some cases, we might struggle with feelings of worthlessness or even suicidal thoughts.

So what should I do about it?

I don’t know if you have SAD. Psychologists estimate that this disorder affects about 10 million Americans, although another 10 to 20 percent might experience mild symptoms. Obviously, to diagnose any form of mental illness would require a visit to a doctor or mental health professional, and this English major is in no way qualified to offer any kind of medical advice.

However, what I can offer you are some practical, research-backed tips that can either help you treat SAD or just combat the winter blues.

Note: if you experience feelings of sadness for longer than a couple of weeks, struggle regularly with negative thought patterns, or ever contemplate suicide or self-harm, please seek professional help right away!

4 steps to fight the winter blues

#1: Get some light. Go outside. Sit near a window. If you can’t get enough sunlight that way, consider a light therapy lamp or light box that will imitate sunlight. Just make sure your body gets exposed to light!

#2: Eat good stuff. And I don’t mean yummy cinnamon rolls and pumpkin pie and chocolate and all that stuff. Sure, eating foods you enjoy can boost your mood, and I’m not going to tell you never to eat them. In this context, though, I’m talking about healthy food, nutrients your body needs. Your brain needs vegetables and protein and healthy fats, and your mood will be more stable if you give your brain what it needs.

#3: Move your body. Exercise gets a bad rap from a lot of people—so don’t think of this as “exercise.” Stretch for 4 or 5 minutes before you get dressed in the morning. Take a walk around the block before dinner. Dance around the kitchen while you’re cleaning up. Just get your blood flowing and your muscles moving at some point today.

#4: Sleep. Sleeping too much can be a symptom of depression—but not getting enough sleep is just as bad. Your brain needs sleep to successfully regulate your emotions. Most adults need at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep per night, so make sure you’re getting that regularly.

#5: Be patient.

Here’s a bonus tip: be patient with yourself. Maybe you feel sad for no reason right now. Maybe you don’t feel motivated to do the things you want to do or feel like you should do. Maybe you’re just exhausted all the time these days.

Listen. It’s okay. You don’t have to feel great all the time. It’s okay to just slow down for a while, give your body some space, let yourself be sad.

Because here’s the thing about SAD: it almost always gets better in the spring. And if you’re feeling down right now, no matter what time of year it is, know that this season will not last forever. Slow down today. Go outside, take a walk, eat a salad, and go to bed. Spring will be here soon enough. The sunlight will be back to normal soon.

And so will you.

Do you feel down, sad, or extra tired in winter? What strategies do you use to cope during times like this? Let me know in the comments!

One Comment

  1. Madison said:

    Thank you for writing this, Amy. So beautifully shared.

    March 4, 2020

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