Seasonal Affective Disorder in Late Winter

(Thanks to our Digital Learning Specialist, Tara Rocha, for connecting me with Mandy C. in Anchorage, Alaska. Mandy contributed the “far North” perspective for this article.)

Depending on how close to the equator you live, February may be the month that brings the first signs of spring—or the month when it feels like winter will never end. We’ve recently posted on ways to keep seasonal affective disorder (SAD), aka winter-related clinical depression, from spoiling your family’s holiday celebrations. But what happens when December is over, the guests go home, the extra lights are taken down, the pressure is on to resume business as usual—and the long nights continue to drag on, week after week?

In Alaska, the northernmost U.S. state, alcohol-abuse rates are high. So are rates for other mental and behavioral-health issues. Though there are many contributing factors, it’s hardly irrelevant that most Alaskans see little or no natural daylight in winter.

Mandy C.: February’s always hard for me: the longer you go, the longer winter seems.

Even at Gulf Coast latitudes where winter nights are relatively short, days are often frigid and gloomy. SAD is no rare visitor in the South, and temptation to seek relief in unhealthy activities can still be overwhelming.

Living with SAD, Through Winter and Before Winter

The best defense, anywhere: first, get advice and treatment from a specialist. Then, get healthy coping strategies in place—before the weather even turns cold, if you or a family member have a history of seasonal-depression symptoms. Know your personal cycles and those of your geographical location: if you live at a far-northern latitude, it may start “feeling like winter” while the southern U.S. is still recording afternoons in the high nineties.

Mandy C.: For me, it’s a challenge to enjoy August, because I’m already anticipating depression in the fall.    

Know your personal SAD “triggers,” too. Under what circumstances do you experience the worst depression symptoms? E.g.:

  • On gray days;
  • On seeing snow to be shoveled—or misty, gusty weather to be driven through;
  • When holiday activities wind down;
  • When holiday bills come due;
  • After a week of too much to do and not enough time;
  • In the presence of others with gloomy/pessimistic attitudes?

Mandy C.: The cold and dark itself is not really a trigger: triggers are things that come and go. For me, the sight of ice is a trigger: it’s beautiful, but it brings thoughts of extra work and effort to come.

Get help from a counselor and/or support group in planning ways to work around your triggers.

Other Tips for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder in Late Winter

  • Put lights outside for after-dark cheer and safety. (They don’t have to look like Christmas leftovers; an ordinary yard or porch lamp is fine. Turn all lights off, or pull the curtains, at bedtime, though. You’ll sleep better and healthier in a dark bedroom.)
  • Get adequate sleep, but don’t stay in bed longer than nine or ten hours: however tempting it may be, “hibernating” is linked to increased depression.
  • Time your getting-up or commute hours for a view of the sunrise.
  • Get out and move: physical activity is a known mood booster, plus an aid to overall health.
  • If outdoor exercise is not an option, do some walking or aerobics near windows that let natural light in. (You can do this in a mall or gym, or in your own home; at home, further increase natural-light levels by hanging up mirrors or painting the walls a pale color.)
  • Schedule daily time for yoga, prayer, and/or meditation to clear your mind and put the world in perspective.
  • Don’t fret over whether your food is fattening (you really do need more calories in cold weather): just make sure it’s nutritious. Plan your winter menus around soup, potatoes, multigrain breads, roasted vegetables, and beans/fish/chicken for protein. 
  • Maximize activities that recharge your emotional batteries, and minimize activities that tend to drain you. (For example, if you’re a natural introvert, you probably enjoy special alone time, but quickly tire of sitting around chatting. With extroverts, the opposite is true: you thrive on socializing and get depressed faster when alone.)
  • Light therapy or tanning can help satisfy cravings for a “summery” environment, but get a doctor’s advice and plan carefully. Many options carry their own health risks.
  • Give yourself something to look forward to: start planning your summer garden or next trip to a warmer climate. And remember: the winter season, especially its long nights, is one thing about which you can not only say “This too shall pass” but anticipate precisely when!

See also: Apps for general depression and planning.

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