Heading into the final months of what has already been an emotionally heavy year, Western New Yorkers are now confronting another – albeit familiar – foe: seasonal change, and with that, seasonal depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), as it is formally known, is a form of depression that comes with the changing of the seasons. Most often we hear about SAD being more severe in fall and winter, when changes in daylight hours and reduced amounts of Vitamin D can have major implications on our physical and mental wellbeing.
“We’re part of nature, we’re linked to that. It is normal to have some type of response to the changing of the seasons,” said Patrick Greene, LMHC, Clinical Supervisor at Horizon Health. “It’s not about having a positive attitude or being strong. It’s about you being a human being and having a response to something that’s happening in our environment.”
We are creatures of routine, and that disruption in our routine – particularly our sleep cycles – can trigger a whole slew of physical and emotional responses that can negatively impact our day-to-day life.
“Because the daylight changes so significantly, it really impacts how we feel and our energy level throughout the day, and that can impact the time we choose to go to sleep and the time we wake up in the morning, which has a significant impact on our mood throughout the day and our trajectory throughout the week, month and season,” said Diana Springer, LCSW, Advanced Practice Clinician at Horizon Health.
Common emotional symptoms to look out for are feeling down or in a low mood, increased irritability, difficulty concentrating, increased social isolation, lack of enjoyment from things and people that typically provide pleasure, and lack of interest or motivation in engaging in activities we typically enjoy. The symptoms manifest in physical ways, too, with changes in appetite, oversleeping or sleeplessness, fatigue, and even some physical pain.
“Of course mental health and physical health are extraordinarily intertwined, and at the end of the day, we’re one person,” Springer said. “There’s no way that our mental health and our physical health aren’t interacting and impacting one another. When we don’t feel healthy enough or motivated enough to take good care of ourselves, that’s going to impact our physical health. And if we’re feeling physically unwell, exhausted, lethargic, even some physical pain which we also see increase during the cold, wet months, that can also impact our motivation to get out of the house, to do things, to be with people, which in turn can increase depressive symptoms.”
Because of the unprecedented amount of hardship, fear, loss and isolation that this year has already brought us with the COVID-19 pandemic, amongst many other challenges, we’re entering the winter season in a heightened state of vulnerability. Even for the most resilient of us, the combined impact of these forces on our wellbeing can be impossible to brush off.
“This has been a year for the record books in a million different ways – none of which we would have chosen,” Springer said. “Given that we’re already in what we would consider a vulnerable place going into what can often be a pretty challenging season for a lot of people, recognizing that vulnerability and being thoughtful about it instead of denying it can help all of us take better care of ourselves.”
It’s important to do a self-inventory and determine whether you’ve noticed a change in the last several weeks in regard to how you’re feeling. Sometimes the simple act of labeling and tracking your moods can be an effective tool to start with. If you’ve noticed any of the aforementioned symptoms or are simply feeling less like yourself, the key is to be proactive about addressing it, rather than suppressing it or ignoring it entirely.
Not one remedy that fits all, and there are numerous coping strategies and treatments that can help. First comes the willingness to explore and experiment with some different methods and find what works for you.
“It becomes necessary to intentionally bring in activities and responses that can help with feeding your soul,” Greene said. “We need to do that now, more so than ever, because of everything that is happening.”
Some of the most powerful weapons for combatting mental stress are rooted in simple physical movement. Many notice a change in mood from adhering to a consistent exercise routine, which is a treatment we can design for ourselves.
“You can think of exercise as medicine,” Greene said. “When you’re exercising, you are initiating a whole host of biological and physiological reactions and responses that will have a counteractive effect to a lot of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder.”
Greene notes that meditative breathing is another very effective tool that we can all get into a routine of practicing in just about any place throughout our day – from the office, to waiting in line at the grocery store, or during quiet time at home.
“When you’re doing that diaphragmatic breathing, you’re activating the vagus nerve which is connected to all sorts of different functions, but it’s also associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and that’s like the brakes of your stress response,” he said. “So when you’re doing that deep meditative diaphragmatic breathing, you’re activating that part of your system that helps calms things down.”
Another non-invasive option is Lightbox Therapy, which is offered locally at the Buffalo Holistic Center. “Essentially, you’re sitting up to 24 inches away from a lightbox that puts out 10,000 lumens,” said Candice Browning of the Buffalo Holistic Center. “Studies show that SAD can go away in a week or two, which is faster than pharmacology. The lightbox is mimicking the sun that’s being taken in through your eyes, which is able to trigger the biochemical changes in your brain to help regulate your circadian rhythm.”
For those who are uncertain about what they’re experiencing or how best to navigate it, there are also a wide range of options for help from mental health professionals. The Western New York Mental Health Association and Horizon Health are both great options for those seeking information on what resources are available and where to begin.
“At Horizon, we provide a multitude of services from individual counseling to group therapy, and we have nurse practitioners and psychiatrists who do medication management,” Springer said. “So it’s really a more holistic approach in being able to address whatever is coming up and trying to implement change in people’s lives, weather they link just for a short period of time and do short term therapy to get through a tough time in their lives, or if they link to long term therapy and do some more processing and exploration work – we’re available for all of it.”
Once you’ve found a form of treatment or an activity that helps you feel better – whether it’s going for a run, scheduling more time with the people you love, or having a conversation with a therapist – the key is to remain consistent with utilizing it in order for it to be effective in the long run.
“This is not a light switch where you can turn it on and it stays on, or something that you do once and suddenly it’s all taken care of,” Greene said. “The way our system works, we respond to repetition and consistency. So if you start doing an exercise or a coping skill, you might not feel any different initially, but if you allow yourself to do it over a period of time that is when you will notice a change. You’re essentially building up armor for yourself over the winter months.”
Another important thing to note is that, like the pandemic, we’re all going through seasonal change together. This is critical to remember when caring for ourselves, but also when we’re trying to provide support to loved ones who may be experiencing SAD or some other form of mental distress. Greene notes that simply listening and offering validation is the best support you can offer.
“Making that human connection is really important – that presence, that outward compassion,” he said. “You don’t have to solve the problem, but if you’re able to sit with somebody and just be there being present with them, that really makes the difference – especially now. Give yourself permission just to be a human being with the person that’s in front of you. That will do so much for the other person and will do a lot for you as well.”
While it’s difficult not to feel a sense of foreboding, and sometimes even dread, at the dreary season that lies before us and the emotional challenges that often come with it, we also know that it’s not a permanent state of being.
“As we know, all seasons pass,” Springer said. “There’s never been a winter that didn’t end, even here in Western New York. I like to think of this whole year as being a season that will also pass. Keeping that in mind, recognizing ‘this too shall pass’ can be a valuable concept to cling to, but also recognizing that we don’t have to do it alone. Sitting through the storm together and maybe learning from some people who may be able to help and pooling our resources to support one another – I think that goes a really long way.”
Buffalo Holistic Center
Horizon Health Services
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