Managing Seasonal Depression: Taking Care of the Mind

Written by Jessica Puterbaugh | December 8, 2022

Migraine, Seasonal Depression and SAD: Part III

In parts 1 and 2 of this series we discussed seasonal depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the importance and benefits of taking care of our physical bodies. Today, we focus on taking care of the mind.

As I mentioned previously, I live outside of Chicago—a location known for its long, harsh winters. Each year, right around the time we change the clocks, my SAD returns. I start feeling sluggish, irritable and begin to have an increase in migraine attacks. It is safe to say that my migraine brain does not like the cold and darkness. But winter here is far too long to spend my time wishing the months away. I had to learn to embrace the season and appreciate it for what it has to offer, which is a chance to slow down and enjoy the stillness. To do this, I needed a major shift in my mindset.

Focus on Intentionality

I learned that one of the biggest things that helps me stay in a positive mindset during this time of year is being intentional. If I can be intentional with how I spend my time and how I want to feel, I’m better able to stay present and in the moment. This is not easy when you live with migraine, because some days just don’t go as planned. But I find when I can do some of the following each day, I’m less stressed and feel better.

Time-blocking and habit-stacking

I know I am not alone when I say that keeping motivated when I’m not feeling my best is a huge challenge. Especially during these winter months, keeping up on all we need to do can feel like a struggle. Add a migraine day into the mix, and suddenly we’re falling behind and feeling overwhelmed, which creates more stress and perpetuates the cycle of not feeling well.

When my therapist first recommended the concept of time-blocking, I didn’t think it would be for me. But I was wrong! I’ve found it to be a super effective way for me to keep motivated and get a little done each day, which helps prevent me from feeling like things are piling up and getting out of control.

I do a very simplified version of time-blocking—I set a timer and do:

30 minutes on chores or things I have to get done
30 minutes of movement
30 minutes of something I want to do (usually reading, or doing something creative)

These blocks don’t have to be done all at the same time, especially if you’re not feeling well. But, I’ve found that even on my worse days, I can generally stick to this obtainable schedule—even if it means I decrease the time to 10 or 15 minute intervals and do them throughout the day.

This kind of time-blocking has helped me change my mindset in many positive ways. It helps me to feel more focused, productive and accomplished. It stops things from getting too out of control, and puts self-care on the schedule every day. When I do these consistently, it helps me stack healthy habits and keep the routine going. I’m continuously surprised by just how much I can accomplish in such a short period of time!

Lean into the coziness of the season

Another great way to be intentional about winter is to elevate your surroundings. Since we’re inside a lot more during these months, I like to think about how I want my home to feel. How can I make it more of a winter sanctuary that is conducive to rest? Some of my favorite ways to do this include:

  • Decluttering
  • Lighting some unscented candles
  • Putting out cozy blankets and throw pillows
  • Playing soft music
  • Diffusing winter blend essential oils that I can tolerate

Schedule time for fun and connection

Winter is a time for rest and it’s okay to let yourself lean into your body’s natural hibernation period. But it’s also important to have some fun and connect with others to avoid feeling too isolated. Having something to look forward to can keep us going and getting together with friends and family can energize us and boost our moods.

I find it particularly helpful to plan ahead and schedule get togethers so that I’m more likely to stick to them. You don’t have to plan anything too extravagant—having tea or lunch with a friend, meeting up with a neighbor for a walk, or even just scheduling a phone call with someone special can be all you need.

Enjoying the coziness this season brings doesn’t take much. I like to do simple activities I don’t do as often at other times of the year. For example:

  • Enjoy a non-alcoholic drink, hot chocolate, or tea
  • Do a puzzle
  • Crochet, knit, paint or work on another creative indoor activity
  • Take a winter walk in the snow or sunshine
  • Watch a favorite show or movie
  • Read
  • Play a simple game
  • Take a warm bath

Focus on Acceptance

There is a lot we can do to try to improve our mental and physical health during the darker months, and all year round. But sometimes we can do all the right things and still have stretches of days, weeks or even months where nothing seems to help. This is where acceptance comes in and for me, is one of the hardest things to do. But when we can learn to accept that sometimes we will have hard times where we just don’t feel well, we can take some pressure off ourselves. It’s okay to not feel like doing things sometimes. It’s okay to not feel happy 100% of the time. And it’s okay to need extra rest.

At times when I’m having a particularly hard time and nothing seems to be working, I find it helpful to have a simple mantra or phrase that I repeat to myself. It changes depending on the circumstances but it’s usually something like “Everything is temporary, nothing is forever,” “Some days are like this,” and/or “I’ve gotten through this before, I will do it again.” Repeating these helps to give me the little pep talk I need to keep going, and acts as a reminder that hard times are part of life, and they will come and they will pass.

If you live with migraine and are also experiencing seasonal depression, it’s important to talk to your doctor, especially if you’re feeling down for days at a time, can’t get motivated to do things you need to or normally enjoy, and/or notice changes in your sleep or appetite. In addition to the ideas already covered in this blog series, many people find it helpful to try:

  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Writing and journaling
  • Practicing daily gratitude

Seasonal depression and SAD can be really difficult to deal with, but doing something each day can help to keep your mind more focused and in a positive place, so don’t give up, and remember to reach out to others who understand for support and connection!

Let Us Know!

If you have SAD, what tips can you share for taking care of your mind at this time of the year?

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