It’s the most wonderful time of the year—until it’s not.
For many Americans, the holiday season and its aftermath can be the launching pad for seasonal lows. While these months can be exciting and merry for some, for others it’s stressful, or a reminder of loved ones who have passed. While some people thrive in the hustle and the bustle, others are drowning and can’t catch up.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, certain symptoms determine whether you are affected by the winter version of Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- Overeating (with a particular craving for carbohydrates)
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal
- And other symptoms of depression
These may all be indicators that you could be suffering from SAD.
Even if you don’t have SAD, which impacts nearly 10 million Americans every year, the dark evenings and decrease in sun exposure alone can make things seem bleaker. We have been designed with rhythms in place for us to honor. The sleep/wake cycle and the night/day cycle work together to sustain and nourish us.
Unfortunately, we now live in a time where we have access to artificial lights and stimulation 24/7, so those rhythms get interrupted. For certain people, it creates mood disruption that greatly interferes with daily life. Sleep gets interrupted due to stress, which only increases stress levels and mood fluctuations throughout the day, and the cycle is perpetuated.
How to get through seasonal depression
As both a health coach specializing in mental health and as someone who struggles with winter lows, I believe it is crucial to have a plan in place to navigate this time of year. What follows are a series of action steps anyone can take in order to provide space for awareness and preparation as we enter a difficult season for many.
1. Get sunlight.
Obviously, this is not the easiest thing to do this time of year, but stepping outside and getting natural light in your eyes within thirty minutes of waking can prime the body’s circadian rhythm. It supports the chronobiology that God created us with so that, at the end of the day, the body can produce melatonin in order to wind down. There are other forms of light therapy in use for SAD, such as red light therapy, and that can also play a helpful role in regulating this important rhythm. But by honoring this simple rhythm, you can also see a major difference in sleep health as well.
Likewise, when it gets dark outside, prepare yourself by slowing down, dimming the lights, and letting your body know that it’s time to rest. Creating a healthy sleep routine and wake routine can be extremely supportive to circadian rhythm function, which supports mood health.
2. Get moving.
For someone in the middle of a depressive episode, this is the single most difficult thing to do. When you are depressed, it’s a struggle to get out of bed, much less lace up some running shoes to go for a jog. You don’t have to run a marathon or even a 5K. You don’t have to run at all.
But by creating a habit of activating movement through a walk, stretching, and maybe even an occasional dance break to a favorite song, this can keep your body and mind engaged. Exercise continues to show in the research as one of the most powerful antidepressants available, but when it’s cold and dreary, it’s easy to drop the habit. Find a way to engage your body in movement daily.
For me, creating a regular movement habit was a turning point in my mental health journey. When I’m anxious, taking a quick prayer walk or doing some deep stretching and breathing can clear my mind. When I’m trending downward, movement can remind me to be present in my body and not check out or “play possum.” Movement is a powerful tool—and it’s free!
3. Get away from energy-zapping people and events.
You don’t have to go to every party you’re invited to. You don’t have to attend or volunteer for every church event. You don’t have to say yes to one more obligation.
This is a tough one because this time of year it is easy to get wrapped up in others’ expectations of what you need to do. It’s easy to get distracted by the urgent over the important. But by practicing boundaries, you can make time for the things you want to spend the most energy on without completely draining yourself—which can be a recipe for a crash.
If you struggle with ministry obligations, it’s a good time to remind yourself of the body of Christ. You don’t need to be the hand, foot, leg, torso, and head. You get to play a role, and others play their roles as well. We are one body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12:14). When you establish clear boundaries and take the weight off yourself, you allow someone else to use their gift.
4. Get your support team in place.
While some people are energy-zapping, others offer nourishing support. Let the people in your circle know this is a difficult time for you. Ask them to keep a closer eye on you. Ask them to check in on you.
Again, as one body with many parts, we have been called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). There has never been a time in my life when I didn’t regret sharing my burden with someone close to me. Depression is isolating. It lies to us that we are completely alone. If I even feel a tiny hint that my mood is trending downward, I share with my circle. I ask for prayer and strength and to be reminded of the truth of God’s word: that I’m not isolated and that my life has meaning and purpose.
5. Get nutrients.
The food we consume paves the way for our neurotransmitters to function well. In fact, some studies have indicated that a diet rich in tryptophan-containing foods can be helpful in decreasing depression and anxiety symptoms. These include oats, bananas, dark chocolate, dairy, tuna, nuts and seeds, chicken, and turkey.
Furthermore, a study from the World Journal of Psychiatry identified the Antidepressant Food Score profiling system, which highlights the top twelve nutrients needed for mental health and lists the most nutrient-dense plant and animal foods to combat depression and anxiety. Leafy greens reign supreme with the antidepressant food score of 76–127 percent, while oysters are the number one animal food at 58 percent.
6. Get quiet.
One of my favorite daily practices is listening to the First15 podcast. It is a way for me to listen to the truth of God’s word with guided prayer time for reflection and praise.
Gratitude is anti-inflammatory and can lower stress hormones by 23 percent. When we get too busy, we forget to be still and listen to God. We forget to make time for intentional listening. The Bible frequently uses the phrases “remember” and “don’t forget,” and I don’t believe that is just a repetitive blip. Creating space for praise and gratitude not only strengthens our connection to the Lord and our purpose in him, but it also impacts our mental health.
Your next steps
We live in stressful, triggering times. We live in a world where even the concept of an out-of-office automated email response is outdated because everyone has email access at all hours. We pack our schedules, eat food on the go in our cars, get constant phone alerts, and have access to continuous news—negative and positive.
It is a struggle to find balanced mental health any time of the year, but for those with seasonal blues, this time of year is the hardest.
Give yourself and those around you grace to make it through this season.
Ask God to draw you to resources and people who will be the most supportive for your mental health.
And if you don’t struggle, you can be a safe space for someone who does.