I grew up in the rural mountains of northern New Hampshire. Harsh winters were simply a part of life, starting as early as September and lingering often until late April. Jumping into this climate at five years old was a perfect beginning for me. Young enough to avoid the burden and responsibility of shoveling, I spent my days in the snow mounds, pretending to be an adventurer and building snow forts. I could stay outside in the sea of white for hours, blissful, until the cold and fast-approaching sunset finally drove me inside for a cup of hot chocolate. I loved driving around with my family, trying to catch a glimpse of every single crystal-coated tree. I loved sledding and building our annual snowman, and I joined the local ski program and fell in love with the sport.
I never, ever imagined winter could become one of my worst enemies.
In 2008, when I was thirteen, I used a free ski pass towards the end of the season and hit the slopes for the day. The conditions were cold, grey, icy, but I was a good skier. It was nothing that should have impeded me.
But, I made a stupid mistake. As I went down a steep trail, my momentum exceeded my control, and in my fear I sat on my skis — merely increasing my speed. What I think happened next? I fell, a ski got stuck in the snow, and I flipped forward headfirst into a fence post.
The rest of the story is for another time. But in short, I sustained a “mild” traumatic brain injury (concussion), in which the orbit of my right eye was crushed and the dura around my brain tore, causing spinal fluid to leak and elevate a risk for meningitis. A few months later, I underwent brain surgery and have struggled with a personality flip, PTSD, migraines, and severe depression and anxiety ever since.
Needless to say, the season was ruined for me. The car crash I was involved in about 4 1/2 years later due to slushy winter road conditions didn’t help matters. A fear not only for myself but for any of my family or close friends who went about their normal, daily lives in wintertime grew. The first snow of the season brought about those awful “falling” nightmares, exacerbating my PTSD, in which I dreamed myself or someone I loved sustained a brain injury. The white world I once celebrated as my own personal Narnia was now permanently tainted grey, shrouded in fear.
For many years, I didn’t know how to cope. I let the depression and anxiety overwhelm me, the PTSD deaden me and become an excuse. I let the feelings of resentment and fear, bitterness and hate rise every time I saw the first snowflake of winter. Even after a few years of therapy, this was one area I couldn’t overcome.
I’m not sure what switch was flipped in my brain. But this winter, 2018-2019, something finally changed…
This year, I looked forward to the first snowfall. I have relished snow days and voluntarily taken my dog outside to play fetch in the snow. I pushed past migraines to take my camera out and trek through the snow, admiring winter’s beauty. I have breathed through travel anxiety successfully, walked over patches of ice without injury flashbacks, and have had only one major post traumatic stress dream this winter. All things practically impossible since that afternoon in 2008.
As I’ve learned to implement simple living in my daily life and how to increase my daily awareness, I was able to pinpoint five things that have helped me beat my persistent winter depression.
First and foremost, I am on an antidepressant. I balked at medication for my mental illnesses until last year, when I became a little desperate after trying so many other things with no success. While I don’t think the medication has been perfect, it’s too much of a coincidence to dismiss it by saying it has played no part. I don’t want to be on this my whole life, of course, but there are times I wish I hadn’t put it off for so long. There is NO shame in medication, and anyone who tells you otherwise needs some serious educating.
Seasonal living has perhaps been the biggest mental contributor to my success. Living seasonally teaches you to embrace the season with gratitude and even excitement. I’ve learned to accept winter, embrace the unique changes that happen each season, and apply physical tools to help cope with the cold (such as not keeping your home a toasty haven to create a less jarring experience when actually going outside). Appreciating my season of life — in every aspect — has drastically changed the way I view and interact with winter.
If you want to learn more about seasonal living, let me know in the comments!
Setting a Simple Focus
Simplifying my days is another area that has helped my winter depression, especially in creating a simpler focus. From practicing minimalism to blogging to learning more about photography, giving myself a strong but one-track focus each day has gifted me purpose. Having these few interests and taking one thing to learn or work on each day means I’m filling my hours with both purpose and enjoyment Nothing is more motivating to get me up and going on a bleak winter’s day… except perhaps an Udi’s chocolate muffin with peanut butter spread on top. Yeah, that’s a foolproof motivator to get me out of bed, too…
Allowing Myself to Sleep
This system isn’t flawless but nevertheless has helped. Going hand in hand with living seasonally, our bodies just naturally need more rest in winter. Keeping to the same schedule we implement in the spring and summer just isn’t healthy for our systems. Before I would beat myself down about not being able to get up early in the winter mornings, but now I let my body sleep. I set my alarm for a half hour later than usual, sometimes letting myself sleep past that if my body needs, and I take the mornings slowly.
**I do have the luxury of being pretty flexible in my morning right now. If you don’t have that, you can still implement better and longer sleep by winding down and going to bed an hour earlier than usual.
It’s a safe bet to assume that most of us are busier during the spring and summer seasons. There’s more energy, more joy, more opportunity to get outside, more picnics and family gatherings, and longer days. We are just naturally more focused on outward activities and growth. But winter is a time for self-reflection and quietness, and the more we fight that, the more depression settles. (Now, having learned more about seasonal living, I wonder if a lot of my seasonal affective disorder was just my body telling me to change pace.) While I have worked on outward growth, like minimizing my house and growing this blog, I’ve upped my inward awareness game as well. Winter is nature’s natural way of telling us to slow down, appreciate the little things that give us joy and comfort, and literally gives us a plethora of down time to do a little self-exploration (do you know how many snow days I’ve had this winter? There’s been a lot of time for self-reflection).
Do you struggle with winter depression? Let me know what helps you or if you’re going to try anything from this list!