The SAD story: Howell details how to navigate seasonal affective disorder

December 23, 2022 | 12:07 am

Updated December 22, 2022 | 11:17 pm

This article was written by Ivory Howell, owner and operator of Ivory Howell Counseling, LLC and a licensed professional clinical counselor.

Navigating seasonal affective disorder (SAD), often referred to as “seasonal depression,” emerges as a common topic at my therapy practice with each change of season. Symptoms can include sleep disturbance, depressed mood, weight fluctuations, and, in extreme cases, suicidal ideation.  

Though SAD is not a free-standing mental health diagnosis, the presence of a “seasonal pattern” of depressive symptoms may be documented as a specifier to certain diagnoses such as Major Depressive Disorder. Oftentimes, seasonal woes are not intermingled with a clinical diagnosis and are rather related to situational factors, such as job loss in seasonal industries.  

While in these situational cases formal intervention may not be necessary, it can still be helpful to embrace experimentation with preventative strategies and responsive countermeasures to neutralize the effects of SAD.  

Below are examples of the many strategies and factors to consider when facing SAD:

Self-fulling prophecies: Do you predict and plan to live miserably for the duration of winter even before the temperature drops? This type of problematic thinking greatly increases the likelihood of your dark visions for the future becoming reality. Practicing mindfulness, intentionality, and boundaries with self regarding what you say and think about a season can dramatically alter how you experience that season. Replacing self-sabotaging sentiments with gentler and realistic statements holds great power.  

  • Problematic statement: “Winter is going to be terrible. I dread it. I wish I could sleep until spring.”  
  • Possible alternative statement: “In the past, winter layoffs have been hard. This year I’ll use the time to rest my mind and body while I explore hobbies and possibilities for more reliable employment. I will not live this winter like I did the last.” 

The trick is catching self-sabotage in real time so that you may exchange certain defeat with a possibility for victory.

Adaptation: Deliberately or subconsciously removing desirable activities, settings, and behaviors from your routine due to seasonal factors like weather can erode mental health.  Adapting and being creative with how you approach self-care during a less-favored season is an essential for SAD sufferers. 

For those who avoid the cold yet crave outdoors, clothing and other items designed to improve tolerance to unsatisfying temperatures and weather conditions may be a worthy investment. Cozy up to a small fire pit and use an astrology app to locate stars and constellations so that you won’t have to miss the healing powers of fresh air and connection with nature. On the other hand, if you’re heat-adverse, a kiddie pool and a cold lemonade in the yard on a scorching day can be your ticket to some much-needed outdoor time.

Mind Games: Did you know that the primitive parts of our brains don’t comprehensively understand what is reality and what is not? This neurological feature can be used to your advantage with a little practice. Think about the last time you lost yourself in a spine-chilling movie: the music, the sound effects, the visuals, the storyline. Your mind and body likely momentarily experienced anticipation, terror, and relief just as though the events of the movie were actually happening in proximity.  

Immersive practices such as guided meditations and visualizations can work similarly to this movie example and may provide temporary relief from seasonal mood issues. For optimal results, identify an emotional state you typically long for during an episode of SAD. Brainstorm situations, destinations, and activities that catalyze manifestation of this state. More than likely, you can find free meditations and visualizations online directly centered on activating your desired mood state and including themes you associate with it. 

If meditation is not your style, creating an environmental stage to shift your mood can also work.  Capture wintertime warm fuzzies while trapped in a heat wave. Crank up the air conditioning so that it’s cool enough to wear your favorite sweater, turn on the gas logs, and blast those carols while sipping hot chocolate.  Bring the beach to a cold winter’s day by transforming your bathroom into your favorite tropical paradise, equipped with aromatherapy, vacation tunes, a relaxing bath, and anything else which triggers sensations to which you desire connection.

Seasonal affective disorder can be overwhelming and cruel, regardless of its origins. I would be remiss to omit a reminder as we collectively shiver through the short daylight hours of winter to set, communicate, and enforce healthy boundaries with yourself and others. Connect in ways that are healthy for you; disconnect when you need to as well. Approach with curiosity that which hurts and that which heals, and then use your findings to adjust accordingly. Invest in yourself. 

Your needs, wants, and desires are important just like everyone else’s — honoring this fact may very well unlock doors to overcome SAD and any number of other challenges which move you away from your highest mental health potential.

December 23, 2022 | 12:07 am

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