Winter can be a tough time for everyone –– it’s dark, it’s cold, our skin gets dry, our noses run, we get sick more often, and our bodies seemingly go into hibernation with all the holiday treats we eat. I, along with most people I know, have always been partial to summer. I prefer to sweat it out rather than bundle up. Even so, though, I can appreciate a good ski trip to the mountains or a cozy day spent inside with hot chocolate.
Winter has always affected my mood, as well. No one likes leaving the office and realizing it’s already dark outside. No one likes putting on their heaviest clothes just to leave the house and find they’re still freezing. I’m no different. I don’t want to go out when it’s cold and dark outside and yet I find myself going stir crazy sitting inside. There seems to be no solution.
Because of all of this, I always suspected I might have a mild form of seasonal depression. It’s something I only learned about once I entered college and it seemed to explain a lot of my behavior patterns and mood swings during the winter months.
So I thought, “eh, okay, will just have to be aware and power through.” And I dealt with it without any help until last year, when my doctor prescribed me a daily vitamin D supplement. “Here, all the Czech people are on it since the sun doesn’t shine here during the winter anyway. Makes them happier. And it’ll help your immune system,” she said as she handed me the bottle. “Great,” I thought, “maybe this will help my seasonal depression then.” I happily took the bottle and went home, thinking I was killing two birds with one stone.
I took the supplement for the next few months and it did wonders, but for reasons different than I expected. I had no noticeable change in my general mood, other than the fact that I was pumped about finally not being sick. The vitamin D helped my immune system immensely, which made me very happy, but I also began to realize that maybe I didn’t have seasonal depression after all.
This suspicion was confirmed a few months ago, when I became close to someone who unknowingly demonstrated to me what seasonal depression really looks like. He would never admit that he has it, but there is no other explanation for his change in behavior and attitude during this past winter.
He was constantly cancelling plans for no other reason than that he was tired; he was napping for several hours each day after work because otherwise he had no energy; and he was finding every excuse possible not to leave his house.
It became extreme –– he was isolating himself from everyone and everything. And quite frankly, this behavior from him was driving me insane, not only because I wanted to hang out without being holed up at his place, but also because I genuinely questioned how he could be happy living like that.
When I expressed these concerns to him, he apologized and said “I’ll be better in the summer, it’s just because of the winter. I just hate winter.” To me, this seemed like an excuse, so I kept pushing. I heard the same words over and over and it didn’t hit me until he jokingly said something along the lines of “I think I must have experienced some trauma in the winter that I erased from my mind because I really just dread it and I hate it.”
It finally clicked for me. Seasonal depression. Sure, I don’t particularly like winter. But I’m still wanting to go out and have fun with friends, maybe go sled riding, or take my camera for a photoshoot in the snow. But all of these things would never even cross his mind.
And so, with this new understanding, I’ve adopted a different strategy of dealing with people with seasonal depression. It’s something that I’ve gotten used to and learned to be more patient with. As a relatively energetic person, it’s been difficult and at times, frustrating, for me to try to understand, but here’s what I’ve learned about being close to someone with seasonal depression:
Don’t be afraid to push a little.
Everyone, even the most introverted of introverts, needs human interaction once in a while. Even if it’s sitting by yourself in a coffee shop, it helps. So get them out of the house every once in a while –– don’t let them isolate themselves too much. If they argue, gently argue back.
It might even be best to ask them to help you with something or to invite them along to something you really enjoy doing, just so they don’t feel like you’re doing this solely for their benefit. If they still roll their eyes at you, try a line like “if you want to leave after 30 minutes, that’s fine, but at least try coming out with me for a bit.”
Come up with fun things to do.
Get creative! Something I ran into a lot was when I asked him what he wanted to do, he would say, “My creativity is lacking, what can we even do in the winter?”
You can do a lot in the winter! Some people just don’t know it yet. If they’re outdoorsy, suggest a mountain hike or a ski trip. If not, go bowling, see a movie, go to a board game cafe, an escape game, or any other indoor activity that strikes your fancy. Make the plans yourself so all they really have to do is show up. If you make it as easy as possible, it will feel like less of a chore for them to join you.
Stay in with them sometimes.
While you shouldn’t be afraid to push a little, there are also times when you should give way to what they want. If they really don’t want to be bothered with making an effort, pick some movies, order takeout, and stay in with them for the day. They will feel more loved and understood if you make an effort to do what they want to do sometimes, and this will inevitably make them more relaxed and put them in their comfort zone.
Don’t blame them. Be gentle.
No one chooses to feel this way. No one chooses to make themselves miserable during the winter. This is a legitimate issue for them that they clearly are not sure how to overcome.
Sure, maybe some of their decisions can affect the way they feel or they could make more of an effort the help themselves, but clearly it’s hard. So, when you express your concern, be gentle. Don’t attack their choices or their feelings. Ask them to explain how they’re feeling, if they’re comfortable doing so. If they’re not, just let them know you’re there for them if they ever need you. That simple message can help a tremendous amount.
Understand that it has nothing to do with you.
This was, and admittedly still is, the biggest thing for me. At first, when this person was cancelling on me all the time and choosing to sit at home rather than honor our plans, I felt unimportant. I felt very low on the totem pole because in my world, if I care about someone, I will do my best to make time for them. He wasn’t doing that. This is why I started pushing and attacking.
But in reality, I’m beginning to realize that his actions the past few months literally had nothing to do with him not wanting to see me or not caring about me. He was just too in his own head with his seasonal depression to think about anything else.
So, our job as friends and loved ones, is to help them come out of that as much as possible. The way to do that is to not take anything personally and to be as encouraging as possible. Be careful not to nag –– this tends to be something I struggle with, but no one wants to spend time with people who nag them that much. Gentle encouragement is always the answer. Offer your support, make yourself available, but don’t be afraid to challenge their excuses when you need to.
Do you or does someone you know suffer from seasonal depression? How do you cope?