Health and Wellness

5 Ways to Cope With Seasonal Depressive Disorder, as told by Amazonians

If you’ve ever experienced Seasonal Depressive Disorder, or SAD, you know it is a quaint little acronym for what can be serious—even debilitating—symptoms.

While it can look like other depressive disorders, SAD occurs seasonally. Decreased sunlight in fall and winter can alter your body's internal clock—compare Seattle’s measly 8 hours 25 minutes on the winter solstice to almost 16 hours of daylight on the summer solstice—which can lead to depressed feelings. It can also cause a drop in serotonin, the brain chemical that affects mood. And given that Seattle gets more than 150 days of rain annually on average, it’s no surprise that locals are well acquainted with the struggle.

About 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience it, and it typically lasts about 40 percent of the year, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than in men.

If SAD strikes, it's common to feel depressed most of the day, almost every day. You might find your energy level tanking, and that you’re just not interested in doing much you used to enjoy. It can also mean major changes to sleep or weight (usually sleeping and eating more, whereas non-seasonal depression may be marked by weight loss and insomnia), social withdrawal—even suicidal thoughts.

And 2020 might be an especially hard year for symptoms. Instead of going into the gray months buoyed by the sun-kissed glow and elevated mood of summer, Amazonians have long been isolated from social situations for months already. Soon, shorter days and gloomy weather stand to compound the mental health toll brought on by the pandemic.

If you experience SAD, take comfort in knowing there are actionable steps you can take to boost your mental health and feel better. Here, Amazonians experienced with the condition share their own tips and tricks for feeling upbeat and coping healthily through the bleak winter months.

Try light therapy. Light therapy, using artificial bright light to mimic sunlight, can give those dipping brain chemicals a boost. “I have a UV-simulating light at eye level in my bathroom and it helps me wake up,” says Amazonian Jacque Themel. “I also have an all-in-one UV lamp alarm system by my bedside so that light slowly comes on and helps me get off to a good start in the morning.”

Foster an animal. If your housing unit allows, try fostering an animal for some science-backed pet therapy. “A lot of folks are adopting right now and I think that's great,” Themel says. “My concern is if people are thinking long term. If you foster, you get that physical touch, which is actually really good for people, and you’re giving that animal a treat. That's a win-win.”

If you’re in Seattle, visit a shelter like Seattle Humane or PAWS to foster an animal. If that’s too much to take on, the same organizations also welcome volunteers. Or, consider spending some time as a dog walker through an app like Rover—which gets you both quality time with animals and some mental health-boosting physical exercise, too.

Get outside. Nature is therapeutic—so get outside as much as possible even (especially!) in those grey months. Areas surrounding Seattle offer endless opportunities.

“I went to a cabin in the woods. It’s great as a way to get outside your little space and reconnect with something that's more calming,” Themel says. “It feels refreshing, and at least you can take that midday walk in the woods, instead of around your neighborhood.”

Amazonian John Alaimo also plans to make it a priority to get outside more this season. He’ll head to Seattle-area environs for “some light hiking, maybe some snowshoeing, get out there in the sun as much as possible,” he says.

Free apps like AllTrails and BikeMap—and even Google Maps—can point you to a trailhead near you that’s just right for your experience level and the amount of time you have.

Schedule something. Alaimo has long struggled with the seasonal transition, so he says makes sure to schedule a vacation to get some extra sun. “I schedule it right in the middle of the darker months just to break things up, and knowing that I have that to look forward to helps right away,” he says.

He says that planning a trip helps establish a vacation psychology all season long. “Before a sunny vacation, maybe you get a little more fit, more active, so planning a trip keeps that mindset and pattern of activity going through winter.” He does plan to travel even during the pandemic—even if just domestically.

But even smaller, more local commitments can help. Themel plans to schedule more daytime meetups with friends this season, such as lunchtime walks. And she has a regular family dinner on the calendar. “Every three weeks, we get together and order out, do a potluck, or somebody cooks, and we spend a few hours together. It’s lovely,” she says. And importantly, it’s something to plan around and look forward to.

Eat what you love. Themel runs a coaching business for eating disorder recovery, and says her “big passion” for that purpose-driven work helps anchor her through the winter months. But it also informs her strategy to embrace comfort food. “I have a different stance than you might hear from a lot of folks on this, but I believe in intuitive eating and I don’t think winter is a time to cut out food,” she says. “In fact, I would say it’s quite the opposite: I think now more than ever is the time to allow yourself access to comforting foods.”

Her advice is to avoid restrictions, “as often that leads to restrict-binge [cycle] and worse outcomes in the long run.”

Call in the pros. If none of these ideas help—or don’t help enough—that’s OK. You’re not alone. “SAD is really hard and sometimes medication and therapy is helpful,” Themel says. “In winter, keep up with seeing your therapist on a regular basis—and if you need medication, take it. I know I do, and it helps.”

Alaimo, who is the co-founder of Amazon’s mental health and wellbeing employee resource group, agrees. “I’m very open with my mental health, and it’s all about having open conversations and checking in,” he says. “I use psychiatry and therapy and have a good community at work and at home. All those things are good for keeping yourself honest and being proactive.”

Know that you have options, too: Download the Amazon Care app to get health advice by chat or video, quickly and efficiently, 24 hours a day.

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