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Preparing for, Coping with, and Radically Accepting Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Jae Lin

The weather will continue to get cooler as fall turns into winter, and the sun will start to appear for fewer and fewer hours each day (here in the northern hemisphere). This seasonal change, for some, can mean pulling out the big coats, driving with mittens on, and turning on the fireplace. And for some of us, it also means a declining mood and falling energy levels.

Most people with seasonal affective disorder are affected in winter, but many people experience summer depression as well. Whatever season affects you, there are preparations you can make and coping skills you can practice to make the time more bearable. Furthermore, embarking on a journey towards radical acceptance can be rewarding and freeing.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a type of depression where a person experiences mood affectations in conjunction to the arrival and departure of seasons. The National Institute for Mental Health writes on their website:

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. Depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur, but are much less common than winter episodes of SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not considered as a separate disorder. It is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern.”

The symptoms for SAD are the same as those of major depression, including feeling hopeless, low energy levels, having problems with sleep, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, thoughts of death or suicide, and more. The distinction is that people with SAD experience a pattern of depressive symptoms that coincide with specific seasons (for two or more years).

Preparing for the Season

Since SAD is by definition cyclical, the patterns of start and end are relatively reliable. As the season approaches, preparations can be made in order to ease the transition and hopefully lighten the overall load when the depressive symptoms hit (or intensify).

Here are a few suggestions and/or reminders on preparing for the season:

  • (Re-)commit to (re-)establishing a regular self-care regimen.
  • Consider beginning, reviewing, or restarting a plan for therapy (of any kind).
  • Consider beginning, reviewing, or restarting a plan for medication. Carefully understand and make a note of how and when medication needs to be taken. Keep simplified notes on this and place them where you store your medication, so you don’t have to worry about reading extensively for or remembering these details later on.
  • Stock up on the small comforts that serve as easy, go-to coping mechanisms (for example, your favorite candles, a comforting snack, art supplies, a new journal, etc)
  • Be ready for the weather. If you’re preparing for cold weather, plan out your wardrobe to include thermals, lots of layers, and pocket warmers. If preparing for warm weather, place fans strategically around your living space, pull out or invest in a good windshield shade if you drive a car, clean your ice tray, and etc.
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, start a conversation with your friends, loved ones, coworkers, and community members about your experiences with SAD, what changes may happen in your relationship or engagement level. It can be difficult, to be honest about what we need, but the people who love and care about us want to be helpful.
  • Consider investing in a light therapy lamp, particularly if you tend to spend much of your days indoors because of work, living situation, school, etc.
  • Do what you can to lighten your regular load of commitments, stresses, and roles if possible. This could mean backing away from certain projects or people, setting more flexible deadlines, or asking for some extra support.

Coping During the Season

When it comes to coping through depressive episodes, SAD episodes tend to be pretty run-of-the-mill, with the extra consideration of the weather.

Here are some thoughts on coping and balancing mood and weather during the season:

  • Find as much sunlight as you can and find ways to be in it.
  • Use a light therapy lamp regularly if you have one.
  • Try to keep yourself within mild temperature conditions as much as possible. Particularly in summers and winters, weather can often be extreme.
  • Do your best to keep up with prescribed medications.
  • Even if you are on a “break” (because of school, seasonal work, or anything else), try to maintain a regular and daily routine.
  • As much as possible, stick to relatively consistent schedules of sleeping, eating, bathing, exercising, etc.
  • Be gentle with yourself.

Radical Acceptance

It can be hard not to feel seasonal affective disorder weighing down your hopelessness. In part, this is because hopelessness is a common symptom of depression, but the cyclical nature of SAD can also seem daunting and endless. Every season always comes and goes again with every new year.

In so much of mainstream mental health affirmation, the concept of a linear recovery, a goal of perfect health, and that promise that “it’ll be okay” or “it gets better” is so prevalent. But for many people, and particularly those who experience seasonal affective depression, these concepts can be invalidating. Sometimes, mental illnesses are chronic, and they might never get better. And that’s okay.

For me, by radically accepting that my depression is chronic and seasonal affective, I allow myself the freedom to break away from viewing recovery as linear and progressive. Every year, winter will always come around again, but so will spring. Some years may be darker than others, and I might never be “better.” But I am worth caring for, worth loving, and worthwhile just the way I am—by others and by myself.

My radical acceptance is not perfect; it’s taken the better half of a decade for me to be where I am, and it’ll take much longer—maybe forever—to grow closer to a fuller acceptance of my seasonal affective depression. And that’s okay. That’s okay.