By Liat Clark
All things considered, we’ve been pretty lucky so far, soaking up the sun and 70s through October and into November. There’s something gratifying about getting to take fall-themed, outdoorsy pictures when the weather is still screaming “Summer!” There I was on the first Friday of November, enjoying 74 degrees in NYC, when BAM! Winter weather blows through the door the very next day. Am I the only one who was taken off-guard? The timing of this surprise winter weather coincided with the start of midterms, which made it all the more dreadful. Never fear, just as I started breaking out the boots and coats and layers, daylight savings was cut off, and any sunlight I might want to enjoy after 5PM effectively was cut out. So here I am, 3 weeks into midterms that will blend seamlessly into finals (because, really, the light at the end of the midterms tunnel is all the way in January), bundling up and braving the cold with only a few hours of sunlight to keep my body warm and my spirits up. This time of year may herald in the holiday joy, but for me, it announces the arrival of winter depression.
I’ve faced a lot of skepticism when I tell people that winter makes me depressed. They think I mean it colloquially, the way a Stern girl might declare depression because the caf is out of teriyaki salmon (a tragedy, to be sure, but not one to cause a DSM-V disorder). It has taken me a considerable while to identify this for what it was; there was always a “trigger” of some sort that enabled me to justify the lethargy and negative thought patterns: midterm exhaustion, recent relationship drama, anything in between. There was always an excuse that I offered myself for staying in bed and skipping all my classes that day, not even getting up to eat, ignoring texts and pretending to sleep when my roommates walked in. Once I acknowledged my disorder for what it was–a recurrent major depressive disorder called subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder (SSAD, a milder form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD))–it was much easier for me to combat its effects.
My sleeping schedule can easily get out of whack, especially once I start factoring in late nights for studying and assignments. Combining that with my natural night-owl tendencies rocketed me to hypersomnia and significantly low energy in the winter months. Once my sleeping schedule is off-course, my eating habits and meal schedule derail along with it. Regular mealtimes go out the window, easy carbohydrates substitute any semblance of clean eating, and all of a sudden the numbers on the scale and on my clothing label have shot up. I wind up feel run-down and gross, and have no interest in venturing outside–plus, it’s subfreezing! Therein lie the classic symptoms of SAD and SSAD; here is how I’ve been preparing to fight them this winter.
Just because we’re in not in a season where nature grows and changes, doesn’t mean I have to remain stagnant. It’s so easy to stay cooped up when the temperature drops, and I find myself wrapped up in blankets and bad thoughts. Walking outside during those (elusive) daylight hours not only exposes me to crucial bright sunlight to regulate melatonin secretion (responds to darkness by causing sleepiness) and serotonin transport (a neurotransmitter believed to be responsible for balancing mood), but so is exercise to combat the lethargy and weight gain. Plus, as the beloved Reese Witherspoon taught us all in Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” I fight the social hibernation urges along with my physical hibernation by inviting friends on these walks with me. Planning to do fun things with friends, especially outdoors, may take extra energy that I feel I don’t have, but not once have I regretted how I felt afterwards–energized, happy, and healthy.
Though maintaining a healthy sleeping pattern is certainly a year-round struggle, being diligent about my sleeping schedule has become a number-one priority for the winter. Getting enough sleep at night helps me fight off the urge to nap during the day, even when I’m sleepy around 4PM because the sun is turning in for the night. Once I’m sleeping well, I am able to eat better. Adding fish to my diet has also improved how I feel, because it replaces a lot of the carbs that make me sluggish, and has the Vitamin D said to have potential benefits to those struggling with SAD. Eating healthy, combined with my attempts to be active despite the cold weather, improves my mood as much as my physical health, and helped me ward off the lethargy and negativity before I can get snowed in by my depression.
Winter blues are real, and I’m no longer in the dark about them, even while it’s dark outside. Simply speaking to others about what I go through each winter has been incredibly cathartic, and so many others have told me they experience similar symptoms when winter rolls around. One friend on my floor actually has a light therapy lamp in her dorm room to simulate the effects of sunlight and fight the fatigue of winter blues. SAD can make us feel alone in our depression, but more than anything else, this article has been for me, and hopefully for you, dear reader, a chance to see that I am not alone in my SADness.