People have a fairly inaccurate polarizing view of depression. And, the majority of these views are wrong. Depression gets painted as the person that’s “sad, and crying all the time”. And yes, that’s a part of it but for the majority of those with depression, you never see that side of it. You mostly see the happy-go-lucky person that’s making you laugh. Or the dependable friend that is always there for you. The co-worker has made it their personal mission to make everyone at the workplace laugh until they need stitches. Basically, there are so many faces that depression can take. Including mine. Additionally, the holiday season is the time of year where depression and suicide rates increase. This could be due to seasonal affective disorder, grief, loneliness, financial strain literally a million different reasons. Hence why I wanted to talk a little bit about my personal struggle with depression and mental health. In an attempt to shed some light on what living and managing depression is really like.
Why Depression Worsens in the Winter
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety regularly since I was a teenager. As a teenager, my depression was mostly due to being bullied and struggling to find my identity. Whereas, as an adult, my depression is more idiopathic. Meaning I have no real “reason” or “cause” for my depression but I can find myself knee-deep in depression. And, it’s so easy for me to slip into a depressive state during the winter. I didn’t always understand why my depression would get worse during this time of year. It was only through working with a therapist that I began to understand that this seasonal transition impacted me on a biological level. Environmental changes due to decreased sunlight and colder grey weather cause a decrease in Vitamin D exposure and serotonin production. While melatonin production increases and the body’s circadian rhythm is disrupted. The combination of these factors increases my already delicate chemical balance and makes me that much more susceptible to struggling with depression and anxiety.
Let me put it this way. You’ve probably noticed that when the time changes it messes with you for a bit. Especially, when we “fall back” and lose that one hour of daylight. You get sleepy earlier and want to be at home more. Your sleeping schedule is thrown out of whack. Perhaps you find it difficult to focus and concentrate at work and you’re a little cranky. Well, it’s kinda the same thing for me except my symptoms are more intense and last for a longer period of time.
What Depression Feels Like
There are definitely levels when it comes to how depression affects my mental health. It can be mild and easy to manage kinda like a mosquito bite. Is it itchy and annoying? Yes, but you can very easily apply anti-itch medication and keep moving. Typically, my milder symptoms involve me becoming a bit more melancholy and pensive. I’ll experience increased bouts of low energy, which can lead to oversleeping. Concentrating on daily tasks, and projects become increasingly difficult. I lose interest in my hobbies and things that I normally enjoy. Additionally, I’ll experience increased anxiety which leads me to become hypersensitive. I’ll have random crying spells and become upset very easily.
But, there are times that it progresses to an intense raging beast. It becomes a chickenpox outbreak. You find yourself completely miserable unable to get comfortable because you itch EVERYWHERE. You take oatmeal baths and slather your body with calamine lotion and it doesn’t really soothe the itch. So, you just lay there and suffer.
At its worst, that’s what my depression feels like. On average, my more aggressive symptoms include antisocial behavior that leads me to become reclusive and standoffish. I develop intense social anxiety and develop an aversion to groups, loud noises, and the human population. My thoughts and feelings are a negative spiral of hopelessness, failure, worthlessness, and endless grief. At this point, I’m usually numb and cut off from everything and everyone. I can’t even begin to explain what it feels like to feel nothing. I can only imagine it’s what a black hole must feel like. And, what makes this type of depression so serious is that you have no idea you’ve reached this level of depression. The denial is thick and deep and you truly believe you’re just this way. You really believe there’s no way out.
Finding Healthy Coping Mechanisms
My therapist taught me a lot about how to get a leg up on depression and seasonal affective disorder by becoming proactive. Instead of waiting for depression to happen to me I plan and prepare for its visit. Doing this can make it a short, fairly painless visit. But, if it begins to show signs of an extended stay I have a plan in for how to cope. I’m going to share some of my favorite coping tactics. They differ depending on if I’m going through a mild depression or more severe depression.
Mild Symptom Management
In the early stages of my depression, I can usually catch it and prevent its growth by focusing on these five areas of my life.
Cheesy? Perhaps, but becoming more aware of my thoughts, emotions, mindset, and environment is beneficial. I can quickly identify mood shifts, potential triggers, and issues before they have the chance to fester and grow. Now, there’s no set path or plan of action when it comes to mindfulness. It’s something that’s going to look different for everyone. For me in particular, mindfulness is a combination of things.
For example, taking the time to journal and write daily helps me stay in tune with my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It also helps me to express myself better. Finding time each day to be grateful and thankful for all that I have keeps me attached to the present by decreasing my anxiety. Taking time to myself regularly to enjoy the simple pleasures in life such as a warm cup of hot cocoa, making warm cookies, a face mask, cuddles with my dog. Whatever makes my heart happy and loved. Remaining present in my faith is also important. Regular meditative prayer where I focus on specific bible verses can be healing in so many ways.
Moving your body is not only beneficial for obvious health and fitness reasons. But, it’s helpful in boosting serotonin and dopamine levels naturally. This is why I aim to work out at least 5 times per week preferably first thing in the morning. First off, this helps me wake up while improving my mood and boosting concentration. Secondly, I’ve gotten my exercise out of the way for the day. Additionally, after I’ve fully recovered from my surgery I intend on looking into learning about team sports and leagues that I can perhaps join or participate in during the winter. Not only will this keep me active but it will help prevent me from isolating myself and spending too much time alone in my head.
Spending Time with My Dog
My dog is a goofy, comforting, protective, fun companion. She’s an oversized lap dog that wants nothing more than to spend her every waking moment with me. This alone makes her worth more than gold in my book. But, I also like the fact that she keeps me responsible. Since I have to maintain a semi-routine for her this creates accountability for me. For instance, she loves walking around the neighborhood; it’s legit her favorite thing. Taking the time to give her a brief 15-minute walk outside helps me get outside of the house and can also help boost my mood. Essentially, having a pet has helped with my depression for two reasons. One, it gives me a sense of responsibility to something other than myself. And two, there’s nothing quite like the bond I have with my dog. She’s very in tune with my emotions and offers lots of emotional support when I’m struggling with depression, chronic pain or anxiety.
Find Winter-Friendly Hobbies
I’m a warm weather person that loves to be outdoors hiking, running, camping, cycling. Pretty much any activity that involves being outside enjoying the sun is my kind of activity. There aren’t a ton of outdoor winter activities that I’m drawn to. So, finding hobbies and activities that I can enjoy on the inside can help me not feel so stir-crazy. This winter a couple of my goals are to improve my Spanish, spend more time reading, and get involved with barre.
Get Out and About
I’m a reserved, introverted homebody that, aside from my dogs and husband, enjoy my own company. Essentially, I find large groups and social gatherings to be draining and keep them at a minimum. As a matter of fact, I require little social interaction. My introverted nature can make it hard to differentiate between my natural personality and depression. As a general rule of thumb, I try to make sure I get out of my bubble at least once a week. For example, visiting local community events with my husband are great excursions for me. Small, intimate parties and gatherings are also perfect as they do not overstimulate me excessively. Meeting friends one on one for coffee, dinner or some other fun event is also terrific.
For the times I’d rather enjoy my own company but need to get out of the house I like to go on walks in my neighborhood. Sometimes, a trip to the library can brighten my mood and lift my spirits. Simple little acts like walking around the mall, going to a movie alone, or having dinner with myself can be so fulfilling for me. It’s not always about getting out and being with someone all the time. I’ve found that just making a simple switch to my environment and nurturing my relationship with myself is more than enough.
Moderate to Severe Symptom Management
In the event that my depression becomes more serious, my priority becomes to get as much outside help as possible. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t and CAN’T go it alone when you reach this point. I’ve been blessed to have an amazing husband who is a wonderful support system and can help me manage my depression when it becomes too much for me to handle.
When you’re struggling with moderate to severe depression you need therapy. Working with a counselor has helped me move through so many dark periods. With their help and guidance, I was able to identify stumbling blocks, triggers, patterns, and behaviors that I didn’t notice. Therapists are also great because they hold you accountable. Not only do they point out negative patterns and behaviors but they teach you how to change them.
Having a solid support system is important; even for a reserved introvert. For me, my support system has always been my hubby. Not only is he my best friend but he lives with me and can spot when something’s not quite right with me. He knows when to push me out of my comfort zone and he understands when I just need some time to myself. Having someone in my life that knows this is a game-changer. Especially considering I’ve never in the past had anyone that I could be so intimate and open with regarding my depression and mental health.
Stepping outside of myself to volunteer has connected me with humanity in such a different way. I believe it’s the act of getting outside of yourself and breaking free from your head. When I’m in a severe bout of depression I’m usually so numb and detached from everything. But, seeing people that are going through a tougher time than me has given me such perspective and helped me break through.
Faith & Prayer
Increasing my faith practice when I’m severely depressed doesn’t really come naturally. But, the more I force myself to do it the better I become. During times of internal battle, I devote time to prayer, and speaking specific scripture aloud has helped give my mind and spirit peace.
What I Hope You Take From This
Depression is common during this time of year. Add in the additional stress of the holiday season and seasonal changes and it can be a struggle for many. As you can probably guess depression is NOT an easy topic for me to discuss openly. It’s a personal struggle that I’ve learned how to manage privately through counseling and lifestyle modification. But, I hope that with me opening up about my depression and what I do to cope is helpful to you in some way. Whether you yourself struggle with depression just like me and needed a gentle reminder to take care of yourself. Or, you’re completely clueless when it comes to depression and needed a real person to shed some light on what it’s like.
Regardless of what side of the fence you find yourself on this topic. My wish is that we all move forward with love, peace, and kindness in our hearts. Especially when it comes to loving and respecting strangers. We all have secret and private battles that we’re going through and need a little bit of grace. If you’re comfortable feel free to share some of your coping hacks when it comes to managing your depression in the comment section below.