When winter starts to rear its head, with gray skies and early evenings making themselves known, many of us can also feel it in our bones. You’ve probably heard the terms “winter blues” and “seasonal depression,” and you’ve probably casually used those terms to describe the changes in your energy levels and your sinking December moods. But while many of us feel some effects from winter, some people are affected much more deeply. For some, the change of seasons causes a subtype of clinical depression. Certain reactions to winter months, like fatigue and moodiness, are normal; with the reduction of sunlight, comes a corresponding reduction in the amount of serotonin the brain produces. But other reactions—like insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite, extreme depression, or apathy—are, according to Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, National Director of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy, indicative of a more serious diagnosis: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
For as long as I can remember, I’ve shut down in the winter. I lose the energy to go out, I’m easily overwhelmed by social engagements, my moods become irregular and unpredictable, I sleep through my alarms in the morning, and even the slightest physical exertion feels exhausting. Because this subtype depression waxes and wanes, it’s hard to find the motivation to fight it. But this year, I decided to start the fight before the effects were in full force. I spoke with doctors and psychologists and discussed all sorts of non-medicinal and over-the-counter treatments that help prevent the onset and minimize the wrath of SAD. With their guidance, I spent the last month physically and mentally preparing myself for the winter ahead. Here’s what I tried. And, as always, if you feel like you might be suffering from depression, whether related to the shift in the seasons or otherwise, consult your doctor as soon as possible.
LIGHT THERAPY The Science: According to Wilson, “When natural light is scarce or it’s just too cold to get outside, a light therapy box can prove helpful. The idea of the light box is to naturally stimulate the body’s circadian rhythms and suppress the natural release of melatonin, which triggers sleepiness. Our bodies want to sleep when it’s dark outside. If we can recreate daylight with the box, our bodies will respond with alertness.”
The Process: The first thing I did was some research. If you just go on Amazon and search for a light box, you’ll find thousands of items that claim to treat SAD without any medical backing. Take the time to look into the product and read the reviews. I ended up picking a company in Canada called Northern Light Technologies. They offer a 60-day money back guarantee and a seven-year warranty, which is important because the lights are not cheap investments.
The Results: The instructions were to use the light box every morning for 30 minutes by sitting directly in front of it. I assumed this would be the easiest foolproof treatment, because it involves zero effort. That said, I found it difficult to find those 30 minutes early in the day. My compromise was that I’d turn it on first thing in the morning before I even got out of bed. So now, while I’m curled around my phone reading the news, I have the light on my nightstand doing its job. This way, I didn’t lose a chunk of my morning time. After 30 minutes, I could definitely feel a boost in energy. The light is extremely bright—it’s 10,000 lux just blasting in your face—so by the time you turn it off, you feel super charged. Having that extra boost helped me to feel more ready for the day. My mind was awake and I was antsy to get out of bed by the time I did. It definitely wakes you up, but it’s also definitely a commitment to use it properly.
The Science: In comparison to a barren environment, research shows that having plants around you is a good thing for your health and productivity. In a study, the presence of plants has lowered systolic blood pressure, improved well-being, and lowered anxiety. According to Eva Giorgi of Eva Twine Apothecary, “Having a house plant improves mood, refreshes air quality, and gives you something to take care of—providing purpose and an accomplishable responsibility which can be mentally gratifying.”
The Process: I know nothing about plants, except for the fact that I’m good at killing them, so I reached out to B Floral for some direction. Making a room look green and lively is their specialty, so I told them a bit about my apartment and they came up with a game plan for me, which included a rubber tree, a snake plant, and an alocasia. I put one plant on my night table and one across the room so they are the first things I see in the morning and another on my desk.
The Results: I can’t say for certain that having plants around has been a big part of warding off my depression, but I will say with certainty, that transforming my living space into a living, breathing, botanically infused space has made it feel healthier. Something about having plants around has changed the vibe of my room in a noticeably positive way. Aesthetic pleasure might not be enough on its own for someone struggling with SAD, but greens definitely made me feel more hopeful and more comfortable at home.
The Science: According to Wilson, “Certain essential oils can uplift and energize moods, while others can help calm and support the body’s circadian rhythm. Skin-safe oil blends can be rolled directly on the skin or diffused with water vapors. Some helpful essential oils are citrus, which is uplifting, and lavender, which is soothing to the nerves.”
The Process: Anit Hora, aromatherapist and owner/creator of Mullein & Sparrow, suggested taking a few drops of one or a combo of aromatherapy oils, putting them in the palm of your hands, rubbing them together to heat up the oil, closing your eyes, bringing palms to your face, and inhaling. Doing this for five to 10 minutes when feeling a hint of depression coming on (even on a single rainy or stressful day) will start to trigger your brain to increase your dopamine and serotonin levels, so I followed her directions two to four times a day.
The Results: In the same way that pretty plants please your eyes, pretty scents please your nose. My favorite part of the aromatherapy was the ritual. According to Wilson, meditation can also play a role in centering oneself and creating a more positive perspective, thus easing the symptoms of SAD. Meditation has been shown to be effective in reducing stress levels, prompting the release of calming hormones, and contributing to full mind and body relaxation. The process of applying the oils and inhaling them felt incredibly meditative, so the effects were doubly noticed. The calming oils that I experimented with were most effective. The energizing scents definitely brighten and awaken your senses, but I find you have to continuously use them for any sort of noticeable effect. One sniff of a citrusy oil isn’t enough to get you out of bed or out of a midday funk, but a few sniffs of a calming mixture will lower your heart rate.
Individually, these practices might not have the intensity to lift a bout of SAD that’s already in full swing. But together, the mix of the rituals and the commitment to putting energy toward something progressive definitely feels good. This is the first time I’ve greeted the winter with optimism for as long as I can remember. Additionally, as per the suggestion of my doctor, I included a minimum of three days of 30 minutes of cardio a week, along with B12 and vitamin D supplements to help with energy levels. As with anything, it’s possible that the effects are psychosomatic and it’s impossible to measure how effective each treatment was independently. That said, I can confidently say that the combination of increased light exposure, the introduction of meditative aromatherapy, and the addition of plants to my home have softened the blow of the cold. If you suffer from clinical SAD and come to find that these treatments have not noticeably alleviated your symptoms, you might want to talk to your doctor about medication, which can be extremely helpful. Despite how hopeless this season might make you feel, remember there are plenty of ways to get through it.