Lots of people love fall, and it’s easy to see why.
The smell of pumpkin spice and hot apple cider, the turning of the leaves, and the crisp, cool air on a brisk morning all distinctly signal that autumn is here.
But if I’m being honest, this season always makes me a little sad. As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, I’m reminded that it’s almost winter.
Soon I’ll have no choice but to be cooped up indoors, worrying about winter storms or driving in the dark after 5 p.m.
This year, I’m dreading the changing seasons even more. I was looking forward to warmer weather as soon as quarantine started. I knew it meant I could spend more time outdoors.
My husband and I ordered patio furniture and set up a little outdoor workspace. Working outside under green trees in the sunshine made all the difference for me.
It made physical distancing and my pandemic anxieties just a little bit more manageable.
Months later, the pandemic rages on and there’s currently no end in sight. And the weather is getting colder.
The green leaves are about to be gone, it will be too cold to sit outside, and some of my favorite fall activities — like visiting family and friends, going cider tasting, or taking my 15-month-old son trick-or-treating — won’t look the same.
I’m not alone in feeling down about the changing seasons. It’s estimated that around
Roughly another 5 percent experience more severe seasonal patterns of depression.
Seasonal depression — clinically known as major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns and previously called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — is a type of depression that’s related to the changing seasons.
It’s typically more pronounced the further you live from the equator, as well as for people who have a history of depression or bipolar disorder.
“Some symptoms of SAD include low energy, wanting to withdraw from social activities, changes in appetite, and oversleeping throughout the day,” says Angela Ficken, a Boston-based psychotherapist.
Doctors think SAD is caused by getting less natural sunlight exposure, which may disrupt circadian rhythms.
“Our retina is stimulated by light, which then triggers centers in our brain to modulate the release of melatonin to promote a healthy sleep cycle,” explains Manisha Singal, a doctor of internal medicine and chief medical officer of Bridgepoint Hospital.
“Those prone to SAD have an exaggerated response due to less exposure to natural light, leading to hypersomnia and depression,” Singal says.
“In our current COVID-19 pandemic, major depression with and without SAD is fast taking center stage,” says Singal.
By May, anxiety and depression were already on the rise. Winter could make things worse.
“The pandemic may contribute to worsening of any type of depression, including SAD,” says Melani Shmois, a social worker and expert in cognitive behavioral therapy. “For many individuals diagnosed with depression, isolation can make symptoms worse.”
“In the months ahead, my advice would be to prioritize your mental health like never before,” says Shmois.
Here are some recommendations for how you can do that — even during a pandemic.
Start with the basics
This might sound obvious, but it can be tempting to let the essentials go when we’re feeling down or depressed. This is especially true during quarantine, when many of us are still working from home.
Is anyone going to notice if you stay in PJ pants all day? No. But will it make you feel better to change clothes every day? Absolutely.
So start simple.
“Get out of bed in the morning, shower, eat to fuel your body, and do one thing at a time,” Ficken says. “Ask yourself each day how you want to take care of yourself.”
“You don’t have to move mountains to engage in self-care,” she continues. “When you’re depressed, anything can feel like you’re moving mountains.”
Work on your sleep schedule
“Sleep is one of the first things mental health professionals and psychiatrists look at with clients,” explains William Schroeder, a mental health counselor based in Austin, Texas.
That’s because problematic sleep can cause problems with energy, depression, anxiety, eating, stress, and more. It’s also a contributing factor to seasonal depression.
So focus on your sleep hygiene.
Try waking up and going to bed at the same time every day, and make sure you’re getting around 7–8 hours of sleep every night. Go to bed in a dark, relaxing room that isn’t too warm or too cold.
Leave electronic devices outside the bedroom, or at least turn them off 30 minutes to an hour before bed.
Try to avoid caffeine before bedtime, too.
Get some natural sunlight
With shorter days, this one isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
Still, try to go outside at least once a day to get some natural light, even to quickly walk the dog or run down the street to drop off some mail. Just be sure to wear a mask and physically distance.
If you’re working from home, it’s also a good idea to work or spend some time by a window.
Find time for exercise
Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean an intense workout. Even just a short walk can have an impact on your mental health.
“We do mindful walks in our family as often as possible,” says Ficken. “As we walk, we try to listen to the birds and see where they are located. We also stop and look at all the flower boxes throughout our neighborhood, as well as name colors of all the cars that pass by. It’s a way to be outside and be present together as a family.”
Ficken points out that mindful walks can also be an opportunity for a little physically distant socializing.
“We also make a point to say ‘good morning’ to people and say ‘thank you’ as they cross the street, so we don’t have to,” she adds.
Simple, friendly interactions with neighbors can be a quick mood boost.
Take time to hydrate
“During the [fall and] winter, skin can become very dry since people are indoors where heaters are commonly used,” says Jamie Kim, a dermatology physician assistant based in Southern California.
Cold air outside can do the same thing. That’s why Kim recommends using a humidifier and a moisturizing cream on your skin every day.
It’s also a good idea to keep a lip balm on hand for dry lips, and be sure to drink lots of water.
Find a quarantine-safe hobby
Having an activity or hobby to look forward to is good for your mental health.
If your favorite fall activities were hay bale rides, yoga classes, or eating out at restaurants, you may have to get creative.
There are still ways to enjoy the things you love without endangering your health. Maybe you can still go apple picking at a farm that limits entry and has a mask mandate. If you enjoy yoga, look for an outdoor class.
Individual hobbies are good too.
“Think about a new hobby such as knitting, learning about art, or joining a book club,” Ficken says. “Anything that will create structure outside of work and holds your interest will be helpful.”
Make time for your loved ones
“Depression wants to isolate, and if you listen it will take over,” says Ficken.
It may be tempting to isolate yourself this fall, so make sure to check in with your loved ones through video chat, phone calls, or text.
Remember, it’s OK to ask for help
Again, easier said than done. It’s important to remember that it’s OK to ask for help if you’re struggling.
“If you know your mood is negatively impacted during fall and winter, seek help now,” Ficken says.
If you’re experiencing seasonal depression, there are treatments such as light therapy available. You can also find a psychotherapist who can work with you to develop coping skills and strategies.
These skills, says Ficken, can “help cushion you, possibly preventing a real fall in mood.”
If you’re feeling down this fall, you’re not alone.
It’s perfectly natural — especially this year when so many of us are already experiencing a lot of stress.
If you take the time for a little self-care, it will help develop coping skills for the long months ahead.
Simone M. Scully is a new mom and journalist who writes about health, science, and parenting. Find her on her website or on Facebook and Twitter.