Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
One of my earliest memories from childhood is of a feeling of deep sadness even as I looked out at the twinkling Christmas lights my parents had hung around my window. I can still picture the blurred Christmas lights shimmering through my tears.
When other kids were excited for Santa and presents, I could never understand why I was so sad every December.
Now in my adulthood, I have an official diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and all of those tearful nights make a lot of sense to me. SAD, a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, typically rears its ugly head in autumn when there’s less light and ends around March or April.
Since exposure to sunlight plays a role, it’s been found that you’re more prone to the disorder the farther north you live, where winter days are shorter. Symptoms include fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty concentrating, among others.
After experiencing seasonal depression for 35 winters of my life, I’ve created what I call a “comfort kit” of tools that get me through to spring.
My comfort kit is a mix of products, techniques, and activities that make me feel better. Many of these essentials are inexpensive or even free.
If you try these ideas or develop your own comfort kit and your SAD symptoms just won’t budge, it might be a good time to consider therapy.
Here are my seven must-haves that help me fight my seasonal depression symptoms.
1. 10-minute daily nature sessions
Forest bathing is a form of eco-therapy that means mindfully spending time in nature. I make it part of my wellness routine year-round, and winter is no exception.
Studies have shown even short walks in nature increase mood, among other benefits for the body and mind. I’ve made it a goal to get outside every day, even if it’s below freezing or there are flurries in the forecast.
If I’m not able to make it to an idyllic pine forest, even a quick walk around my neighborhood or to the nearest park allows me to soak up the mental health benefits of nature.
2. Cold-weather accessories that keep me cozy
There are few things that will put me in a bad mood more quickly than feeling cold. Since I won’t be seeing an 80-degree day for several months, I know that to feel comfortable, I have to pile on the layers.
When I’m dressed for the elements, I’m more likely to go for my daily nature walks and stay social. So, I finally sprung for a pair of Smartwool gloves. At $25 they’re more expensive than other gloves. Although, I’m not sure if I can put a price tag on having warm hands all winter long.
Feeling good indoors is important too. I have a huge collection of blankets, fuzzy socks in every color, and snuggly necessities like a lavender-filled owl that I warm up in the microwave. All these cold-weather comforts help me focus on the charm of winter, instead of the cold weather and short days it brings.
3. Scented Epsom salts
If you’re going through SAD, you’re likely feeling lousy. To generate some uplifting vibes and soothe my body, I’ll sit in an Epsom salt bath, preferably one that has a citrus scent to improve my mood. You can buy a large bag of Epsom salts for the cost of a couple lattes, and it lasts forever.
You can upgrade your me time with your favorite self-care essentials: an aromatherapy candle, journal, or your favorite playlist. Just remember to set your phone aside during your soak.
4. Light boxes
The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends daily 30-minute exposure to a light therapy box. I have several light boxes around my home, ranging from the big box on my desk that I received through my insurance to several small boxes that I can read next to.
For the last few winters, I’ve used my trusty Verilux HappyLight Compact, which I’ve placed anywhere from my bathroom counter to the table next to my couch.
5. Caring for plants
When my SAD kicks in, I know that my loved ones are going to rally around me to help keep the house clean, cook meals, and complete other everyday tasks.
When I’m at my lowest, it can make me feel better to take care of something small, like a houseplant. Studies have shown that gardening can help reduce feelings of depression. It’s a simple thing, but I really do believe watering my little succulents can help lift the clouds of my gray mood.
6. Filling up my social calendar
If I’m in the deep, dark throes of seasonal depression, truthfully the last thing I want to do is get dressed, go out, and interact with people. I enjoy being around others, but since withdrawing from social events is a sign of SAD, I accept that it’s just one of the symptoms I deal with.
There are times I respect my limits and stay in — and let’s be honest, it often involves a container of cookie dough and Hulu — but other times, I nudge myself to get out there and do things.
I find that putting events on my calendar that I’m really looking forward to — things like gingerbread-making parties or indoor holiday markets — forces me to leave the house. Many of these events are free or pretty close to it.
7. Meditation and an annual winter mantra
Meditation is an incredibly powerful practice for the mind, proven through numerous scientific studies to boost emotional health. This past summer, I made it a goal to sit down and meditate every single day, which I’ve done successfully using a free app called Insight Timer.
With meditations geared toward depression and visualizations of sunlight and tropical beaches, this is shaping up to be an important tool in my SAD arsenal.
In the spirit of mindfulness, I also develop a new mantra each year to get me through winter, something that grounds me and brings me back to the present moment instead of wishing for summer.
This winter, you might even find me stringing some holiday lights. And with my “comfort kit” essentials in tow, I won’t be looking at them through tear-soaked eyes.
Shelby Deering is a lifestyle writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, with a master’s degree in journalism. She specializes in writing about wellness and for the past 13 years she’s contributed to national outlets including Prevention, Runner’s World, Well+Good, and more. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her meditating, searching for new organic beauty products, or exploring local trails with her husband and corgi, Ginger.