Oh Vancouver, how I adore your vibrant fall weather and moody beaches this time of year. Autumn is SO nostalgic for me! I sit here reminiscing my first real westcoast fall, complete with an abundance of PSL’s and brisk ocean walks at sunset. The colours, the leaves, the smells, all serve as a gentle reminder that nothing in this life is permanent and transformation in and of itself is infinite and unpredictable.
While mother nature is preparing to take things down a notch, I myself am reminded that my hibernation phase is approaching…and fast. I am beyond blessed to be living in a city that may only see snow a handful of days each year, and I consciously try to forget all those years I spent in the freezing cold arctic that is Alberta (how I managed for so long is beyond me). But winter in Vancouver (aka raincouver) is something else.
The struggle is real. Sunlight becomes a thing of the past, darkness engulfs the city in one foul swoop, and we Vancouverites accept the fact that we will resemble an army of drowned rats for the next 5 months. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real thing and can consume you entirely if you’re not adequately prepared.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a form of depression that typically transpires during fall and winter (although it can occur in people during spring/summer as well). It’s caused by a lack of exposure to the sun which decreases our levels of vitamin D preventing our neurotransmitters from releasing serotonin. It’s more than just feeling blue or under the weather. Seasonal Affective Disorder tends to last for a prolonged period of time or until the sun decides to grace us with her presence.
Symptoms include but are not limited to,
- Low energy
- Increased need for sleep
- Feeling depressed
- Lack of motivation
Anyone can experience the debilitating side effects associated with SAD. For those of us with diagnosed mental illnesses, it is more likely that a shift in seasons will impact our overall mood and stability. As with any mood disorder, we are prone to feeling our emotions more intensely. When the sun stops making a regular appearance, our bodies naturally try to adjust to our environment and we can experience difficulty when it comes to regulating our emotions.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with adapting to the colder months as my body so desperately feels the need to hibernate! Through trial and error (and a little research), I’ve managed to come up with a few coping mechanisms to support me through this challenging time of year and ensure that I don’t fall completely off the deep end.
Take Your Supplements
Despite the fact that I religiously take supplements twice a day everyday, I make sure to increase my daily dose of vitamin D in order to combat my seasonal depression. If there’s one vitamin you should be taking on the regular, it’s good old vitamin D! Extensive research has been conducted over the years showing that people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D than those who do not suffer from mental health issues.
On the average day (from about April to October) I like to take 5000iu of vitamin D which seems to be the perfect amount for me personally. But come November when what little sun we do have decides to go down at 5:00pm, I up my dose to 7000iu daily. This dose seems to do the trick and I’m convinced it has prevented me from spiraling on more than one occasion.
Iron is another excellent choice when it comes to taking a daily supplement because it works to combat fatigue, boost your immune system, and aids in a more restorative overall sleep. I take it because I don’t eat red meat and have suffered from anemia in the past. I find it boosts my energy levels even on days when I’m feeling completely depleted from lack of rest. I’ve heard that iron is absorbed better on an empty stomach however I opt to take it after eating to prevent discomfort (nausea, bloating etc).
The Gym is Your Bestie
You’ve been at work all day, commuted back and forth in the pouring rain, and all you can think about is curling up on the couch in your pj’s with a warm blanket and your favourite cup of tea. I feel this on SO many levels! But hear me out. The gym is your bestie! Especially in the dead of winter when SAD is at an all time high. Repeat after me, “endorphins are our friends”.
Ok so I know that the gym is probably the last thing on your mind after a long day (I’m not always thrilled when I come home soaking wet and feeling like a human popsicle either). But this is precisely the reason why dedicating one hour out of each day to squeeze in a workout is so important! Moving our bodies increases our overall temperature, strengthens our body and mind, on top of flooding us with much needed endorphins (you know, the hormones that make us feel happy).
By prioritizing your fitness and creating a routine that works with your day to day schedule, you can prevent yourself from feeling completely lifeless and unmotivated. If you’re the type of person that needs someone to hold you accountable, schedule a workout class or time slot with a personal trainer so you’re less inclined to bail last minute. Alternatively if you prefer to stay home and avoid the cold weather, create a fitness plan that you can do from the comfort of your own home. Whatever it takes to get yourself moving, make it happen!
Monitor Your Sleep
Sleep is also my bestie. But there is absolutely such a thing as too much sleep. Have you ever woken up from a 10+ hour slumber and noticed how disoriented and groggy you feel? Same. I’ve never understood how some people can pass out for 12 hours at a time and rise from the dead feeling alert and revitalized (ps kind of envious). My body just doesn’t operate that way.
If there were ever a time of year for me to become completely neurotic when it comes to monitoring my sleep schedule, it’s winter. As tempting as it can be for me to take a nap after work because “it’s cold” and “I’m tired”, I refrain unless I feel like I’m coming down with a bug. Anything over 8 hours each night (6 is my magic number) and I’m lucky if I accomplish anything other than getting dressed in the morning. Too much sleep can cause one of two things to transpire.
There is truly nothing I hate more than waking up with a wicked headache! A part of me always wondered if this was a direct result of my drinking habits. Keisha 2.0 can confirm that was a lie. Oversleeping is known to cause headaches because it affects certain neurotransmitters in the brain (including serotonin). No wonder I always feel like complete garbage after a night of hibernation. Depression can also occur if your hobbies include regular naps in addition to your daily sleep regimen. As much as our bodies require rest in order to function, too much of anything can be detrimental to our overall health.
Keeping a sleep journal is beneficial for a number of reasons and provides clarity when we are feeling bogged down and unmotivated. Are you experiencing a sleep deficit? Are you getting a full night’s rest? Do you need to catch up on sleep or is there an underlying reason your energy levels are suffering? By creating a visual reference we can tweak our daily habits and avoid the nasty side effects that stem from seasonal depression.
Make Plans + Hold Yourself Accountable
Making plans in the 21st century can feel next to impossible. Most of us work varying schedules or are trying to balance more than one job to simply make ends meet #millennialproblems. I myself am guilty of scheduling a coffee date with friends only to cancel because I’m feeling worn down and straight up exhausted. It’s a very real thing. During the winter I know it’s the most crucial time to engage in social activities that leave me feeling recharged and inspired! But I also know that I have to hold myself accountable and fight the urge to curl up in bed with my pups and shut everyone out. Finding that balance can be a struggle.
The key here is to assess your schedule and set aside a reasonable amount of time dedicated to the people in your life that build you up and make you feel alive. Your ride or dies. Those relationships that are worth every ounce of effort because you couldn’t imagine your life without them! Whether it’s once a week or more of a biweekly get together, you make plans and hold yourself accountable. By prioritizing your social life and surrounding yourself with good vibes, you are less likely to become sucked into the black hole that is SAD.
Writing down your schedule in a day planner or monthly calendar (or in my case both) provides clarity and prevents overbooking yourself, or worse, forgetting about prior engagements. I LOVE lists and any method that keeps me organized and creates efficiency in my day to day tasks (OCD has it’s perks). By referencing my schedule on a daily basis, I take control of my time and hold myself accountable despite unexpected temptations.
Being selective in who I choose to share my time and energy with is key. I know if at any point I had to reschedule or bail on plans last minute, my friends would not be resentful. My tribe has my back. They are supportive, understanding, and lenient. Creating a loving, caring support system is equally important in terms of tending to your mental health. The last thing anyone needs when fighting SAD is to feel pressured or obligated for fear of disappointing friends and family. True friends will understand your need to recharge and allow you the time and space to do just that.
Remember to supplement your Vitamin D, get your body moving, monitor your sleep, and hold yourself accountable! Tune into signals from your body and be willing to make adjustments if something just isn’t working for you. Conquering Seasonal Affective Disorder is possible if you’re willing to put in the work and commit to a lifestyle change. Your body and mind will thank you in the long run, I promise.