It happens every year here in New York City. You’re living your best life in the streets, mingling at the block parties, acting up at the BBQs, when suddenly the temperatures begin to drop. You move through various stages of denial come September, hanging on to any last bit of sun and warmth that you can, and pairing long-sleeved crew-neck sweatshirts with leopard print bike shorts. Next thing you know, the highest temperature you can expect on any given day is 50 degrees. Then, the gray clouds roll in — for DAYS on end.
Being a South Florida girl who was raised in West Palm Beach and spent her college years in Miami, nothing could have prepared me for the mental health challenges I now experience during fall and winter every year. Before I moved up north, all I knew was year-round beach days and 70-degree Christmas weather. Now, if I’m not diligent about keeping up with my wellness routines — which includes bi-weekly therapy sessions, regular exercise, and meditation whenever I can remember to do it — I find myself stuck in bed a lot of mornings, or I’ll go days without going outside because I’m low on energy and have no desire to socially engage.
Much of what I experience during this time of year can be attributed to my diagnosed Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), but it can also be pegged to seasonal depression. Used interchangeably with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it’s the experience of depressive symptoms associated with the changing of the weather — especially a shift from warm weather to cold weather (though some people experience symptoms during the summer, too) — and darker days due to the end of Daylight Savings Time.
“Because opportunities to get outside and absorb sun rays are few and far between due to rain and snow, it can impact someone's mood, motivation, and energy levels,” licensed professional counselor Mychelle Williams, who is based in Washington D.C., tells Unbothered. “Winter takes me by surprise every single year. We know it's coming, but the season change just really startles the system.”
Williams and I are not alone. According to Columbia University Irving Medical Center, seasonal affective disorder is estimated to affect 10 million Americans, and the disorder affects women four times more than men. Some people’s symptoms are severe enough to affect quality of life, and 6% of those with SAD require hospitalization. “The diagnosable factor is how much distress it's creating for you or how much impairment you're experiencing,” says Williams.
Seasonal shifts can be hard.
“We get into a habit or way of doing things. For example, some people love fall and winter [because] they know how to dress during those seasons. Some people know how to nourish their bodies differently in different seasons. For some people who have sweat disorders and things like that, they're not particularly looking forward to summer weather,” Williams explains. “In certain months, people lower their expectations for social activity. [But during holiday months] they know that their social calendar or their social expectations are going to be expected to ramp up, and it's something that probably takes a lot of energy from them in a way that's hard to prepare for.”
You don’t have to have SAD to experience seasonal depression, and if you’re like us at Team Unbothered, you’re looking for all the help you can get to endure the coming months because it’s wild out there in the world right now. Below, Williams shares some tips for surviving the winter blues.
Get Your Vitamin D
“While some doctors recommend certain foods that are high in vitamin D, some of them will tell you to ‘get more sunlight.’ Sometimes sunlight and certain foods are not available to us, and then we have to take supplements,” Williams says.
“With any other vitamin or mineral deficiency, a Vitamin D deficiency impacts our body's ability to produce the things it needs to produce to function the way it needs to function. Even if you love winter, if you're getting less sun and you're not consuming foods that are rich in vitamin D, you end up with a vitamin D deficiency. This can really impact your energy levels, your motivation levels, your ability to get some good sleep, your ability to take in other nutrients, and then it can affect your mood.”
Brighten Up Your Scenery
“[If you don’t have access to sunlight], get a sun lamp,” Williams advises. “Some of us work from home, some of us have to go to the office, but either way we're often in these enclosed spaces. So [buying a sun lamp] or even shifting our location of work can really help us get a little bit more light on us.”
Mind Your Capacity & Manage Your Expectations
“It's not going to be realistic for us to expect ourselves to be as energetic and motivated as we were during other times of the year,” Williams says. “With those managed expectations, it's going to be helpful for us to get curious about things like, ‘Why am I expecting myself to run full speed for 12 whole months?’ No one else does!”
Internalized capitalism is all over us, and one day I really would like to do a survey to see how many Black people have vacation days they still haven't taken. If you don't use ‘em, you lose ‘em.
My therapist and I prepare for my SAD in the summer, like, ‘Okay, what do we need to make sure that we're putting in place when the winter comes so we're not surprised by this?’ To the point of having to work and having to show up, it’s helpful to consider what kind of projects or deadlines are coming up and what kind of support or strategies or resources we can put into place so that there is a realistic distribution of the workload and expectations.
Shift Your Perspective
“When we are feeling low energy and sad, the way we describe the situation that we're in is either going to propel us into something more regulating or it's going to propel us into something more dysregulating. How we speak to ourselves is going to be really important for us,” Williams advises about shifting our perspectives with the changing seasons. “We might have been able to slack off on journaling, meditation, and our spiritual life in the other months where we feel freer. But when you're in the cooler seasons, it's going to be important for us to ramp up our care practices and what we're consuming and what we're telling ourselves about our situation.”
Nourish Your Body With Regulating Foods
It's really hard navigating nutrition and trying to figure out what's healthy, what's tasty, and what's good for your body. I have ADHD, and sugar can send my hyperactivity and attention into overdrive. It's important for me to consume a lot of protein, because protein helps regulate your blood sugar. When your blood sugar is regulated, you have less cravings for sugar. When you have less cravings for sugar, you don't binge on sugar. So if I know that the cold weather makes me feel really dysregulated, it's going to be important for me to have a protein rich breakfast and lunch or I'm going to be piling on the sugar. It's really important to make sure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs.
Start With Where You’re At
Because I'm neurodivergent and I work with majority people who are neurodivergent, I know that the idea of changing a diet, especially when you have your comfort food or your foods that help you soothe, is [challenging]. And so first, I really do want to make it very clear that a lot of us don't have the opportunity to make radical changes in our diet.
But a little bit each day makes a significant difference for us. For example, my mom likes gummy vitamins. If it comes in a little gummy candy, she's going to eat it. That's a way that makes it accessible to her. Find small ways to get more of the vitamins and nutrients you need. Get curious about the things that you already eat. They might have a lot of the things that you need in it and you don’t even realize it.
Lean On Your Community
If community is something that energizes, affirms or fulfills you, then do your best to be in community however you can. Even though we're cozy and we're at home when it’s cold outside, there's still a way to be in community. Let your people know where you are mentally. It might be helpful to say something like, ‘Listen, the winters are really hard for me. Please double text. I'm not ignoring you. Please just hit me with a double text.’”