I recently read a tweet that said, “So excited for my quarantine depression and my regular depression to meet my seasonal depression.” I don’t know if I’ve ever related so much to a tweet. SAD, or seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression many get during winter. I live in Michigan, a state where winters are perpetually grey and cold. SAD gets me every year, but this winter is particularly Game of Thrones-y as its inevitable arrival feels a little dooming. This year has already been tough mental health-wise, winter isn’t bound to help much. I’ve decided to share some of the ways I am preparing to survive winter 2020/21 with my mental health in tact:
Strategy 1: Write all your strategies down
When I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, it’s almost impossible for me to remember the strategies I’ve learned to help me cope. My mind gets caught in the quicksand of my self-loathing and everything else leaves my brain. Therefore, whenever I come up with strategies or skills I can use to help me when I’m depressed, I write them down. This creates a tool I can use in the future when all I can think about is darkness.
This year I’ve decided to make what I’m calling an “Emergency Jar.” I have a jar and a bunch of popsicle sticks. On each stick I’m writing one strategy to help me cope with SAD. The sticks may have questions on them for challenging my negative thoughts such as, “Is there evidence to support your thought?” Or “If your best friend felt the same way, what would you say to them?” The sticks may have instructions on them for things I know help me cope like, “Call your best friend,” “have a dance party,” or “watch Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.” Or the sticks may have affirmations (positive thoughts I know to be true) on them such as, “You are safe,” or “you have a nice ass.”
The sticks will live in the jar all winter. In moments when my depression congeals over my brain and I feel powerless to stop it, all I have to do is grab a stick from the jar. The best part about it is there are no rules. If whatever the first stick says doesn’t work, use another one. Put them all back in the jar when you’re done and use them again next time.
I like to do arts and crafts, so making an Emergency Jar is some shit I would do. If you aren’t like me, you can get the same outcome by journaling or typing a note in your phone. The idea is to create a physical reminder of all the strategies you know work for your depression. Therefore, when your brain is cloudy and winter is unrelenting, you just have to find your Emergency Jar.
Strategy 2: Organize and prepare your support system
In winter we tend to get really antisocial. It’s cold, it gets dark early, maybe there’s snow; none of these things make leaving the house very attractive. However, going into hibernation mode can get pretty lonely, and loneliness makes depression worse. This loneliness doubles down on the regular loneliness that comes with depression. Depression makes you isolate. People with depression are often hyper conscious of being a burden to their loved ones. No one wants to add extra stress onto the already-full plates of anyone they love.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my depression journey is that my support system wants to support me. That’s literally why they’re in my life. Sometimes I need a reminder of this fact. So during periods when I’m feeling good, I have conversations with my loved ones to prepare them for my next depressive episode. This is a pattern I’m repeating now, as I prepare for winter. Those conversations will typically cover the signs and symptoms of my depression, and some actions my friend or family member can take to help. I will explain to them how to know when I’m starting to get depressed. We will create code words I can text them when I need help. We will schedule dates ahead of time to check in with each other just in case.
This year those conversations will look a little bit different because of Covid-19. Many places still have quarantine laws in place, or are ready to go back into place in case of a spike in the virus. My suggestion here is to find a small group of people to create a pod with. Creating a pandemic pod is essentially deciding ahead of time who you trust enough to expose yourself to during quarantine. Once you decide to form a pod, you can design boundaries and expectations around keeping each other healthy physically and mentally.
Strategy 3: Consider light therapy
The lack of sunlight during winter is the cause of seasonal affective disorder. Going to work in January in Michigan typically means arriving before the sun rises, and leaving after the sun sets. Lack of access to sunlight lowers your serotonin levels in your body, and therefore lowers your mood. You become lethargic. You become depressed. Light therapy boxes help with the symptoms of SAD because they mimic natural sunlight. Consult your doctor first, but spending time under a light therapy box daily can raise your serotonin levels and ease seasonal affective disorder. You can buy several different types of light therapy boxes at a range of prices.
Look y’all, 2020 has been a rollercoaster. You don’t need me to remind you of the mental health impacts of the events of this year. Knowing we can’t avoid our seasonal affective disorder on top of it all is a little intimidating. I’m confident, however, that if we prepare ourselves ahead of time we’ll get through it together. Writing down some strategies, making yourself an emergency contact list, and experimenting with different types of therapy are all ways you can prepare yourself for the inevitable winter that is to come.