I Asked a Therapist in Alaska About How to Cope at Home During Dark Winter Days

updated Oct 13, 2020
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As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, many people will find themselves in what feels like a slump that you just can’t shake. I’m among them: When winter starts creeping up, I find myself  oversleeping, eating less than usual, and experiencing a general lack of interest in everyday life than I was in warmer times.

No matter how deep my malaise, it’s a relief to know that this is not just all in my head—and just as importantly, that I’m not alone. There’s a term for this low-level sadness during the dreary darker months: According to the Mayo Clinic, winter blues”. SAD is also extremely common; it’s estimated to affect 10 million Americans, and women are four times as likely to experience SAD as men do.

There are a number of factors that contribute to SAD, including genetics, previous history of mental health issues, and of course, and your environment. This year will also be especially challenging due to COVID-19, which has caused a spike in mental health issues for people living with depression, substance use issues, and more. And the sooner the sun goes down in your town, the more you’re likely to feel it—which is why SAD can be especially tough in places like Alaska, which licensed therapist Jennifer Gessert calls “an absolute haven for SAD.” 

“The intense darkness and cold weather makes it a very tough time of year, and big reasons for the lower population up north,” Gessert, who is based in Anchorage, tells Apartment Therapy. “In the winter, there are only a few hours of daylight, and in some parts of the state, there is actually no daylight for part of the year, which is hard on anyone,” she said. Here, she touches on what SAD entails, how the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified mental health issues, and how to cope with feeling down in the months to come. 

Credit: Sylvie Li

What exactly is SAD, and how do you recognize it?

Seasonal affective disorder can feel an awful lot like a depression that is particularly congruent with the seasons. “I think of it a lot like what many animals do, which is down-shift in the winter season,” Gessert said. Humans don’t hibernate the way many mammals do, and the fact that we continue on with our daily tasks can wear on us accordingly. Add in the fact that society tends to categorize habits like nesting as being unproductive, and self-care as self-indulgence, and it’s easy to see the conflicting forces at play. “If we lived completely according to our natural circadian rhythms like animals do, we likely wouldn’t suffer as much as we would nap and eat, but we tend to feel guilty doing those things instead of our modern responsibilities these days,” she added.

Like any mental disorder, the symptoms of SAD vary from person to person. There are common denominators like overeating or undereating, or extreme fatigue to insomnia, but there is no formula, which can make it more difficult to recognize. Generally, SAD can be described as a consistent depressive mood that affects daily activities. 

“It takes a few years for people to realize they have SAD, since it’s typically an annual cycle, unlike classic depression,” Gessert said. “After a few rounds of the calendar, people who get SAD begin to get worried when they see a certain time of year (generally the fall) on the horizon. Most people with SAD get help later than they really need it. They generally think it will pass, but then it doesn’t. To better prepare against SAD, she recommends preparing at least a month before you feel the first symptoms, not after. “For some this means making improvements in self-care or engaging in therapy, and for some it also means taking an antidepressant for part of the year,” she said.

How will COVID-19 influence people who struggle with SAD?

The stress of a pandemic is already enough to deal with on its own; add in pre-existing conditions like SAD, and you’ll understand why people are concerned about widespread mental health issues in the coming months. After most of the U.S. effectively shut down due to shelter-in-place orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, more and more people have reported a rise in mental health issues and symptoms. With suicide, depression, anxiety, substance use, domestic abuse, and other issues on the rise, it’s as essential as ever to take care of yourself and make more space in your life for mental health.

Gessert suggests that the continued need to shelter in place may drastically influence how people are able to take care of themselves mentally. As more people are working from home, the line between work and life is more blurred than ever, enforcing a sense of being “on” all the time, leaving less time to practice self-care

“We also can’t travel and see our families as readily, or engage in many of our typically helpful coping strategies that typically help people through the dark months,” Gessert said, noting in particular that gyms, places of worship, and going to dinner with friends are all considered “high risk” activities. “The holidays are also notorious for increased mental health issues, and this year with people not being able to engage in seasonal traditions as they normally would is another big hit for mental health.”

While many resources are still learning how to optimize their services for a remote model due to the coronavirus, there has been a widespread push by many to prioritize mental health when and where possible. Gessert adds that most of the mental health services she’s seen have gone online and the inter-state restrictions on care have been lifted, so more people could potentially reach out for a wider range of mental health help.

Credit: Ana Kamin

How can you cope with SAD?

Coping with SAD is not all that different from coping with depression, says Gessert, who notes that sleep and exercise are “two free and completely natural antidepressants.” She adds that seeking out and making time for friends and family in whichever way you can is crucial, because isolation can make depression worse.

“Getting a handle on these aspects of your life will absolutely help protect a SAD sufferer as we head into the darker, colder time of year,” she said. Even though many people are still sheltering in place, there are ways to practice self-care from your own home. Gessert recommends hobbies like cooking, art, taking an online class, or playing with kids or pets.

If a loved one is struggling with SAD, there are ways to offer your support while still following social distancing protocols. A big part in being there for someone experiencing depression is encouraging them to engage in healthy activities like good sleep routines, inviting them to a weekly walk, talking with them on the phone, or suggesting a hobby that the both of you can do (like a book club).

“Starting the winter off on the right foot helps a lot, so doing something together like an online class or planning something for later in the winter to look forward to are other ways to help stay buoyant through the dark season,” Gessert suggested. “Going to see a mental health professional is also a great way to get support and another perspective on what else might be contributing to the depression and how to approach it.” There are a number of resources to help you find a budget-friendly therapist in your area, like Good Therapy or The Difference. Whatever route you go, just know that you are not alone this winter season.