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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Growing up in middle-of-nowhere New England (and in a family whose preferred outdoor activities required sunshine and warm weather) Seasonal Affective Disorder came knocking each winter as soon as the days grew shorter. Although I remember some fun winter moments as a kid–sledding and snowball fights, hot chocolate and walks through the snowy woods–there was always a certain amount of dread associated with autumn’s last days. I suspect that was partly the reason that my parents pulled my sister and me out of school for a few weeks nearly every winter, along with the fact that they wanted to avoid Cystic Fibrosis exacerbations that could come from me catching a cold or flu at school. As soon as those mid-February days came around, when the snow was dirty and slushy, the sky dark, and our patience thin, we would leave and spend a few weeks in the sunshine somewhere. When I went to boarding school by the coast of New Hampshire, where snow would pile up higher than my head by the sides of the paths in between buildings, Seasonal Affective Disorder hit me like never before. Even worse was my first winter back in a temperate climate last year after living in the tropics of Southeast Asia for so long. With the memory of those weeks fresh in my mind, I decided to ramp up my efforts in the battle against seasonal depression this year. Here are some of my findings.

Seasonal Affective Disorder for me has always meant a kind of withdrawing that lasts for the duration of the colder months. My junior year of high school, in one of New England’s most notorious winters, I retreated to my bedroom for an entire trimester. Not only was I run down by frequent colds and sinus infections (part of my dislike of the season), but I was also held in bed by a magnetic urge to be alone, under my covers, in hibernation. I would finish classes, pedal for 45 minutes on an exercise bike in the gym, rush a bowl of cereal into my stomach, and go into my room, where I would finish my homework, watch TV, and fall asleep early. At one point my friends called to check on me since they had barely seen me in weeks, but I didn’t feel like interacting with anyone. There was no real sadness attached to this time, no long-term hopelessness, but rather an urge to retract and lay low, a lack of motivation to be around people or do much other than what was required of me until the sun melted the last of the snow from the quad. Last winter, my first in years after living in Cambodia, I recreated that same withdrawal. I bartended long days, often starting at 9:45 in the morning and carrying on until around that time at night. As soon as the restaurant released its grip on me, I’d go home and jump into bed with a batch of popcorn to watch movies and snuggle under the covers. My husband was in much the same situation, often staying up late after work and sleeping into the afternoon. Any time spent with friends was fleeting, I only managed to ski a few days through my intense fatigue, and colds and flus knocked me down to the point where I divided my time almost equally between bed and work.

My coping mechanism through much of last winter was the thought that “this is only temporary.” One year with Philipp, to make and save some money and get healthy again, then we’d set off into the greater world as we had before, and hopefully to a place with mild winters. The fleeting nature of my life here was what got me through the most miserable days. Of course, neither one of us could see the pandemic that loomed in the distance, and within a month or so of lockdown it became very clear that we weren’t going anywhere any time soon. We were married and then discussed our future, and agreed that we should wait out the worst of the pandemic in this little mountain town, where we have access to all that we need and nature’s wonders are right outside our door, where we are able to stay employed and were able to get vaccinated sooner than our parents who live on the other side of the country and on the other side of the ocean. My first thought, when we made this plan, was oh no, the winter. Determined not to fall prey to my mind’s worst instincts, I decided to challenge myself, take on my seasonal depression and see what I could do about it. Here are the different strategies I employed:

  1. Light therapy (On my quest for information about the battle with seasonal depression, light therapy often appeared in articles I read and conversations I had. I decided to spend $30 on a light formatted for seasonal depression, and have tried to sit directly next to it each morning for about half an hour. I turn it up to the highest setting and sit with a crossword or a book and a cup of coffee, or use the time to meditate. Although I have gotten out of the habit recently, I have noticed that the light seemed to give me more energy during the darkest days of the season, made me more willing to get out of bed and tackle my day once the half an hour was up. Sometimes, I use it as a lamp at night rather than some of the harsher lights I have. I wouldn’t say it’s made all the difference, but it has certainly aided my other efforts!)

  2. Yoga (I decided to invest in a yoga membership this winter, once I had gotten over COVID and was not quite as concerned about exposure as before. During my days off at the end of each week, I sign myself up for 2-3 classes for the next week. This makes me feel productive by figuring my schedule out in advance, and also commits me to classes so I am less likely to flake out. One class a week I schedule for 10 am, so I am forced to start my day early and not lounge in bed until almost 11. I have been attending mostly hot yoga classes, which allow me to escape the chill that creeps up my back in the winter and also sweat out some of the week’s stresses. After each class I feel as though I have released a major burden, and I feel warmer and more energized, too. Some days, with fatigue associated with a sinus infection I had and with my intensive work schedule, yoga is just about the most activity I can muster.)

  3. Salt Cave (I discovered the wonders of a Himalayan salt cave last year when I took advantage of an off-season special to spend 45 minutes in the cave. Not only is salt exposure ideal for someone with Cystic Fibrosis, but its many benefits stretch beyond that. After regularly spending two sessions a week in the salt cave last winter, my quality of sleep greatly improved and I found that I got fewer colds and flus. The salt has immunity boosting and detoxifying properties, plus it’s just nice to sit in a warm room lit by a soft glow and shut the rest of the world out for 45 minutes.)

  4. Meditation (Although I still have not made the time to meditate every day, I certainly meditate more often than ever before. Sometimes just for ten minutes, sitting by my lamp and focusing on my breathing, sometimes I search for Deepak Chopra guided meditations on Youtube or use one of my favorite 30-minute recordings. Even just taking the time to stop my rushing flow of thoughts each day, pause, and take three deep breaths gives me an instant boost of calm.)

  5. Pushing myself (As I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, after pursuing a meditation retreat for a few days in the fall, I made a pact to keep only 33% of my negative mindsets, let go of the rest, and try 33% harder to form healthy habits. Setting myself such a loose and generous goal seemed really attainable. So this winter, I decided to say “Yes” to 33% of the opportunities I was offered–dinner invitations, chances to go skiing or snowshoeing, reasons to leave the house. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it. In the past, winter was my time to say “no” to everything and stick to my own agenda. This winter, I have said yes to just about a third of the opportunities present–getting out of my pajamas to join a friend for a drink, taking on an extra work shift, agreeing to join my husband for a walk when I’m tired and cold. Almost every time I’m grateful I did.)

  6. Lighter Schedule (Last winter I worked nearly every day, sometimes from morning until night. I saw it as my chance to make and save money, since there wasn’t much else I wanted to do in the winter and it was the busiest part of the work year. Although I still try to keep busy, this year I have three days off most weeks. I know this is a luxury unavailable to most, and I am grateful for the flexibility my job allowed this season. The first day off I dedicate to pure fun–bowling with my husband, going on a day trip, going out for a nice dinner or some drinks. The next day I get things done, clean, and then write at night, and the third day I spend with friends, or dedicate to more writing and submitting, or prepare for the week ahead by ironing my work clothes, studying the restaurant’s wine list, thinking over my tasks for the week. This has allowed me to not feel the work burnout I’ve experienced in the past.)

  7. European Pleasure Mentality (When I studied abroad in Italy as a teenager, I was blown away by how effortlessly my friends and classmates could switch into a different mindset once the hard work of the day was over. Classes went from 8 am to 1 pm six days a week, after which I would return home for an enormous three course meal, complete with wine and espresso, and then a little nap before any serious activities could be taken up. Each weekend my friends set aside Saturday night to roam through the city, stopping for pizza, gelato, shopping, coffee, dancing–whatever we felt like. During my time in Naples this way of life was further exaggerated, and in Spain where I walked the Camino de Santiago, all business ground to a halt for a few hours in the afternoon. That time was to be spent exclusively on leisure. There were many-hours-long dinners, aperitivos or tapas, a slow way of enjoying life’s inumerable pleasures. In America, meanwhile, there is no such thing. Instead, we have a constant rush, multi-tasking, stress even while trying to enjoy ourselves, and any time off is racked with guilt. That’s why I have been trying to inject parts of the European lifestyle into my days. Some afternoons I drink wine and read a book on the couch, or plant myself in front of a cheese platter. Certain times during the day or night I dedicate to only activities I enjoy, no work stress or thinking allowed.)

Although it is only mid-March, and there are a couple weeks of hard work and cold weather ahead, I can say I’ve done a pretty good job of fighting off my winter demons this year. There were some challenging moments–sinus surgery and recovery, work stress, extra shifts I had to pick up, fighting through fatigue, a diminished social life during the pandemic, days when I didn’t want to leave bed–but there were also a lot more lighthearted moments. Sometimes, just to prove to myself that winter does not control me, I go for a walk in the woods when it snows, or when I least feel like leaving the house. I’ve gotten excited about the progress our house plants are making, I’ve shut off my phone for a few hours to live in the moment, I’ve kept up with yoga and salt cave and pursued acupuncture treatments, have run around in the snow or gone for a coffee in town even when I could just as easily have stayed home, have carved out time to sit on the couch with my husband and share the craziest moments from our shifts, even if all I feel like doing when I come home from work is watching TV and going to bed. I focused on the above efforts this season because of my determination to make the most of my life, because I am a firm believer that life is meant to be enjoyed. That doesn’t mean that every minute or hour, every season or phase, should be pure fun, but rather that it is possible to spin challenges or dismal weather or a not-ideal situation into a learning experience, and that it is possible to inject moments of calm or fun into almost every day.

What are your experiences with seasonal depression? Feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me at

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