Summer is my season to come alive. I thrive on sunshine. Long, light days lead to increased happiness and productivity for me. As the seasons shift and the days get colder and darker, I need to protect myself against the inevitable shift in my energy level, mood, and drive that crashes down on me. This has been the case for as long as I’ve lived in Portland (off and on for 15 years).
Quick note: I’ve never gone on medication for seasonal depression because it was important to me to figure out a way to ease my symptoms without medicating myself. This was a completely personal decision and it won’t work for everyone. People who need medication or want to try medication should absolutely do so and I hold no judgment against them. For me, though, I wanted to find another way.
Through a decade and a half of experimentation, I can tell you what’s worked for me and what hasn’t in terms of combatting seasonal depression. Again, these are the things that have worked for me and they won’t necessarily work for everyone, nor would I encourage you to try any of these tips if you feel like they’re not for you. As with an exercise routine or healthy lifestyle plan, it’s important for people to find the things that work for them individually. There will always be someone who loves to train for marathons and someone who wants to spend her free time baking and watching movies. You can be either person. You can be both people. Just be you.
Here’s what does not work for me during these darker autumn and winter months:
*Cooping myself up inside the house
*Eating sugary, fried, and high-fat foods
*Drinking more than 1-2 glasses of alcohol
*Staying up late
*Sleeping a lot during the day
*Avoiding nights out with friends
*Spending a lot of hours in a row sitting in front of the TV
*Spending my days in sweatpants or pajamas
*Emotional eating and binging
On the flipside, there are many things I know – from 15 years of personal research – work for me in the fight against Seasonal Affective Disorder. As a reminder, none of this is meant as a remedy for severe depression and I highly encourage everyone to talk to her doctor or therapist about any mental health concerns. These are simply the things that work for me when I’m feeling lethargic and unmotivated and want to spend all my days curled up in bed.
GET OUTSIDE EVERY DAY.
The beautiful thing about this one is that it works immediately. I can walk in a one-block loop around my house and feel instantly revived. The more time I spend outside, the better I feel. I know it can seem counterintuitive when it’s cold and dark and all you want to do is stay inside, but this is the best time of year to get out for a hike, bike ride, run or walk. Getting out in nature removes me from my head and reminds me there’s an entire world out there – one that’s filled with crisp air and other people. I love taking a walk around my neighborhood. I love hiking to a beautiful waterfall. I love walking amongst the trees, appreciating the fact that I’m alive.
EAT A BALANCED DIET.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have a little Halloween candy. This doesn’t mean you can’t bake a pumpkin pie or order the fettucine. This does mean that when I let myself eat only macaroni and cheese and cake and bagels and potato chips because that’s what sounds oh-so-good right now, I feel crappy as a result. When I don’t eat well, exhaustion sets in – apathy, too. I feel heavy in my body. My skin feels greasy. My clothes feel tight. The highs and lows of a sugar crash make me extremely emotional and volatile. I find myself crying for no reason. My emotions heighten. I get stuck in an I Feel Gross So I’ll Eat More Food – I Ate More And Now I Feel Gross cycle. There are so many incredible vegetables in season right now. This is the perfect time to make comfort food with a healthy twist – think pumpkin lasagna, sweet potato tacos, and macaroni and cheese with cauliflower (Fit Girls Guide has recipes for all of these yummy dishes). By cutting back on the white sugars and flours and revving up the fruits and veggies, I give myself a fighting chance during these energy-zapping months.
DRINK LOTS OF WATER.
Water is another magical component of a healthy lifestyle that can make an immediate impact. It’s so easy to confuse thirst and hunger, so staying hydrated is one way to ensure that you only eat when you’re truly hungry. Sometimes I picture myself as a plant. If I go too long without water, by leaves shrivel up, my soil goes dry, and I lose my motivation to grow. When I drink, I feel refreshed. I perk up. I come alive. And in the process, my body and skin feel a lot better. I never thought I’d be the type of person who ordered water at a bar, but this year that’s who I’ve become. As much as I love my wine, beer, champagne, Bloody Marys and margaritas, I have to admit that alcohol does not make me feel great. One or two occasional glasses go down fine, but more than that makes me feel overly emotional, dehydrated, and a little irrational, plus I know the headache and dry skin are just around the corner. For me, for now, it’s best to keep my alcohol consumption to a minimum and my water consumption high.
MOVE YOUR BODY EVERY DAY.
First and foremost, I’m all about body acceptance and loving yourself at any size. I’m not telling you to move with the ulterior motive of hoping you’ll drop some pounds. The amount of time and the intensity of a person’s workouts are a personal decision and none of my business. I think you can be healthy at any size as long as you aim for a generally balanced diet and a bit of movement every day. For me, I need more movement – not from a weight loss standpoint, but from a mental health standpoint. My winter blues are aggressive enough that a five-minute stroll is not going to cut it. I need to sweat. I need to raise my heart rate. I need to push myself. I need to go long enough to ensure my endorphins are released. I’ve found – again, through years of experimentation – that I need to work out six days a week in order to not feel sluggish. It works best for me to do a mixture of cardio and strength training. I prefer working out at home to working in a gym and I prefer running outside to running on a treadmill. Skipping a workout is a guaranteed mood crash. This is something I’ve learned about myself and something I work hard to avoid.
GET UP AND GET OUT.
If there’s one thing I love more than life itself, it’s my fuzzy robe. I love working in my robe. I got ready for my wedding in my robe. I like to watch TV with my husband while wearing my robe. I put my robe on after a shower, after a meal, before bed – anytime I want a little extra warmth and coziness. I could live in this robe, and I almost do. As someone who works at home, it’s a slippery slope and I have to draw the line somewhere. That’s why there are days when I don’t let myself wear my robe. Instead, I insist on putting on an outfit I think is cute, doing my hair and makeup, and going out into the real world. It’s tempting during this time of year to turn down invitations from my friends when the allure of my cozy house is calling, but I make a point of scheduling a few social activities throughout the week so I can remind myself what it feels like to be out in the world amongst people. It may sound superficial, but forcing myself to care about what I look like forces me to take better care of myself in general.
I know how cheesy this one sounds and I used to be the type of person who’d want to puke when I saw someone posting a list of things she’s grateful for on social media. The simple fact is that I feel better when I see the good in things. Life is full of shit and it’s an incredibly easy thing to get weighed down in that. I spent years down in the shit. But here’s the thing: There’s something beautiful, lovely, and wonderful in each day. I don’t care how cheesy that is, because it’s true. The days when I’m feeling the shittiest are the days when it’s most important to recognize the beauty. My favorite moments rarely come from something big. They come when I drink a cup of coffee and make a grocery list while my husband does his crossword puzzle. They come when I eat a bowl of oatmeal and feel it warming me from the inside out. They come when I call my sister or try a new shade of lipstick or read a line from a book I love so much, I go back and read it again. I spent several years of my life working with elderly people and I know for a fact that little shimmers of joy can be found everywhere – in a hospital room after the delivery of terrible news, on the ground after a fall, in a heavy moment after a heated discussion. It’s there somewhere – a joke, an aroma, the color of someone’s shirt – and I just need to notice it and feel grateful for it. And when I do, everything else – all the overwhelming, never-ending, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me shit – melts away. If you’re stuck in a shitty moment, take a breath, look around, and find one thing. It’s there, I promise.
If you are interested in supporting my writing, please visit my Patreon page to find out how you can donate as little as $1 a month to help keep me afloat: patreon.com/kristenforbes.