Fighting the Winter Blues
By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S
Around the end of winter I hear a lot of people talking about Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Most people think that the disorder centers around feelings of sadness (much like the acronym suggests) occuring in a particular season, and often the true disorder gets confused with the winter blues.
In truth, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a more severe version of the winter blues. Clients report feelings of depression or lethargy that occur in a predictable cycle, such as every winter. Sometimes this pattern is part of another condition, such as Bipolar Disorder (click for more information on Bipolar Disorder), but often these feelings can be a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is different from the winter blues, that a great number of people suffer from, in a few ways. For one, SAD doesn’t have to occur only in winter. An individual can suffer from SAD during any season, but such episodes would be reoccuring during that particular season every year. The winter blues are also less severe than Seasonal Affective Disorder. Our functioning and emotional range may be lessened, but it is not so depleted that it is causing significant detriment to our usual lifestyle.
No, the winter blues are something that creep up on us throughout the season and make us feel down, tired, annoyed, or frustrated. Our hopefulness can decrease during this time period, and we can even feel low levels of depression as a result. For me, and a great number of my clients, the winter blues strike hardest in the month of February. I had one client declare February the “armpit of the year,” and I am inclined to agree.
First off, let me say this for the shortest month of the year– it is not all bad. Some of the most cherished people in my life were born in February. I’ve built a fantastically tall snowman on Valentines day, gone skiing for the first time, enjoyed housebound snow days with my kiddos, and celebrated joy with the most wonderful people. That being said, I have also seen my greatest struggles during this last month of winter.
Why is February so ‘meh?’ What about this month pushes a button for so many people? Well, here is what I have heard and concluded within myself. January is over, the excitement of a new year and new possibilities has faded, and we are left with the realization that a magical wind did not bring the kind of sweeping changes we foresaw as the ball dropped. Our resolutions are feeling harder and harder to achieve, and we now see how much work they can be. Or, we aren’t seeing the fruits of our month long labor of change and are disappointed.
Perhaps our relationship was in a difficult place pre-holidays and we put off dealing with that until “after” the holiday madness, but now it’s “after” and we must finally face those difficult conversations or painful choices.
Logistically, this is a complicated month as well. It’s cold, and it’s been cold for what seems like forever. February is often grey, dreary, and wet. Getting outside and seeing our friends or enjoying ourselves takes a considerable effort. Bonus, in my house if anyone is going to get sick, like really sick, it’s going to happen in February. Motivation can be elusive, football is over, baseball hasn’t started, interest payments from lavish Christmas gifts are now due and tax returns are still weeks away. Oh, and did I mention Valentine’s Day, with all the baggage that holiday can carry, is gonna fall right smack dab in the middle of all this? It can all feel like it’s just too much.
However difficult this month may seem, especially now that I have painstankely pointed out the possible pitfalls, there is hope. Here is how I combat the February blues and how I encourage my clients to do so as well.
- Be Intentional
- Don’t let dark days and difficulties sneak up on you. Reactively making choices to difficult situations can distract us from those things that truly bring us joy.
- Make a plan. I plan for February in December. I look at the calendar for fun holidays (hello Mardi Gras) that I can celebrate with my family. I put more effort into my evenings by planning enjoyable activities for me and for my family. We do many family game nights (winner gets a scratch off lotto ticket) and we buy more movies in the month of February than any other time of year. Saturdays are a mix of organizing, baking, and fun outings (even when it’s hard to get out.)
- I carve out intentional ways to connect with my spouse. I throw in extra effort during February because I know we both need it, and I know how much happier I feel when I put forth the energy.
- Make Self-Care a Priority
- What things really help you feel like YOU? Is it yoga? Is it reading? Swimming, chatting with friends, running, bingeing your favorite movies with a cup of hot chocolate? Whatever you do that helps you reconnect with the joyful and authentic pieces of yourself, write it down. Make a list of the things that fill you up and energize you.
- Once you know what those things are, make them non-negotiable. Your kids may have to wait 15 minutes for you to finish your morning workout before you make them breakfast, and they will survive. You may ditch the laundry on Saturdays in favor of brunch with friends– it can wait. Remember self-care is not a luxury, it is a necessity
- Cut Yourself Some Slack
- When we foresee a difficult period approaching, it is imperative we be kind to ourselves. Be generous with your inner praise and quiet the critical voice when it pipes up. Forgive your lack of energy or motivation quickly and offer compassion in the place of reprimand. This is a hard month, more so than others, and it is okay to feel this struggle.
- Like the guilt free self-care, allow your personal indulgences this month to happen with gratitude rather than judgement. If you are going to splurge on a trip (maybe someplace warmer??), February is a great month to do so. Reward yourself for your efforts in a big way this month. Remember these little celebrations and moments of joyful anticipation are the things that will carry you through to brighter days.
Lastly, remember you are not alone in your struggle. As I mentioned earlier, many of my clients tell a similar tale of woe during February. On the other hand, maybe February is awesome for you. Winter weather and hockey season may be your thing, and you are thinking this entire article isn’t for you at all. Actually, these tips of preparation, self-care, and compassion work for any situation where you know it’s going to be a rough time. Maybe it’s just a few days you are dreading and you need a way to ease the hardship.
Perhaps you don’t foresee any complicated time period coming up. These ways of viewing the world can help you elevate the everyday rhythm of life as well. Each and every person can benefit from prioritizing enjoyment and minimizing self criticism. If a hard February turns into a harder March, and a painful April, reach out to us at Noyau. We have been helping clients heal from hurt and cultivate more fulfilling lives for over a decade, and we can help you too.