Depression grips everyone differently. To Trista Kempa, it means lying in bed and wishing she never woke up.
"It’s not that I wish I was dead," the 30-year-old New Yorker clarifies. "I just feel like I’m missing any feeling at all."
When Kempa was a college student living in Michigan, a doctor told her she she may have seasonal affective disorder — a form of depression, fittingly dubbed "SAD," that typically strikes when the days grow shorter in fall and winter. For patients, a persistent decrease in sunlight exposure may cause mood swings, energy loss, increased anxiety, and more.
It's the winter blues on steroids.
GIF by Emma Darvick.
To this day, however, Kempa's not even entirely sure she has SAD — or ever legitimately had it. And she's not alone. For many patients, and even for the doctors treating them, it's no easy task to identify seasonal depression with complete certainty. SAD, like most mental illnesses, can be a labyrinth to navigate — but you and your mental health are worth it.
Here are three things you should keep in mind when it comes to staying on top of your mental health during winter:
1. Many of us haven't warmed up to the idea that less sunlight can mess with our mental health. But we should.
Research has found seasonal depression is certainly real for millions of people, according to Norman Rosenthal, who first described SAD in a 1984 medical journal. Yet, "get some sunlight" fails to make it on most of our to-do lists.
"The mind naturally gravitates to psychological explanations for why one is feeling bad," he explains. It’s not intuitive to link a lack of sun exposure to our deteriorating mood. So we don't.
We tend to solely blame outside stressors — like breakups or career changes — and not even consider that short, dark days could be doing us harm too. Compounded with the general stigma that often accompanies any mental illness, many people are hesitant to acknowledge SAD's legitimacy.
"I was afraid of being weird, of seeing a therapist, of having an issue," Kempa says after having been told she may have SAD. "The stigma was very real for me."
2. Sorting out your own winter blues may not be so black and white. And that's OK.
Say it's mid-January. You've been feeling lethargic for weeks on end. You're craving sweets and starches, and your sleeping habits are out of whack. You undoubtedly have SAD, and you're stuck with it for life. Right?
“Oftentimes, it’s not that simple," says Rosenthal.
A spectrum exists when it comes to extreme SAD and mild winter depression, and patients may find themselves at various points on that scale depending on the year. While the American Academy of Family Physicians estimates about 4-6% of the population has SAD and another 10-20% has more subtle symptoms associated with the winter blues, Rosenthal says external stress and geography (distance from the equator affects the length of daylight) play roles in if and how severe you experience SAD.
One winter, for example, someone may be living in sunny San Diego and have low stress in their private and professional lives. The next winter, they could be living in upstate New York, overwhelmed by work deadlines and personal hardships. The difference may well manifest in a person's mental health, says Rosenthal: "You can have the winter blues one year and then full blown SAD the next."
What's more, if a person lives with other mental health hurdles that aren't necessarily tied to the seasons, it can be even more difficult to sort through how they're feeling and why. Physicians may also find it difficult to confidently diagnose a person with SAD, seeing as many of the symptoms are similar to those associated with other forms of mental illness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"I still don't really know [if] I ever had [SAD]," Kempa says. "When you’re diagnosed with depression, or anxiety, or SAD, or anything that is trying to pinpoint what’s going on with your brain, it’s just complicated. It’s hard to know exactly what it is."
It's important to be aware of all the factors that could be contributing to your winter woes — including the amount of sunlight you're getting.
3. The good news is, there are many things you can do to curb the worst effects of Old Man Winter.
“Whatever your degree to which you are affected, there are lots of things you can do about it," Rosenthal says. "You don’t have to suffer.”
Let start with the most obvious: Get outside during the day, if and when you can! When winter daylight is short, many leave for the office in darkness and commute home after the sun sets. The struggle is definitely real. But even a short, brisk walk outside on a lunch break can make a difference.
You could also create a "light room." Clean the window panes, open the blinds, trim the outside shrubbery, and make sure you have (at least) one space in your home that gets maximum sunlight. Shift as many daily activities — like reading, Netflix-ing, or hosting friends — to that room as you can, so you can take full advantage of the rays.
And if the real sun's just not cutting it at home, consider buying a sun lamp. According to the Cleveland Clinic, they're a safe way to help your body regulate melatonin and serotonin — hormones that aid in sleeping and stabilizing mood.
It never hurts to be mindful of diet and exercise. Staying active and eating proteins and vegetables — and (sadly) avoiding sweets and carbs — can give you more energy throughout the day.
Of course, reaching out for help is always a great option too.
"Understanding mental health is really complicated," Kempa says, noting that because of supportive family and friends — and being more cognizant of what she's feeling — she's been in a great place for quite some time. "It’s not diabetes. It’s not a broken bone. You can’t just fix it. There’s no one-size-fits all drug or path to healing and wellness. I think this is what makes it all so daunting. And when you’re in it, it’s hard to put in the effort."
Sometimes we can't — or don't want to — do it all alone. And that's perfectly OK.