As you see the sun increasingly less during this time of year, you might also find yourself feeling sad and wondering why things are feeling more and more difficult. You notice that it’s harder to keep up your motivation. You’re feeling disconnected from your friends and family. There are days you feel significantly weighed down by your sadness. All you want to do is lay down, take a nap, and not have other responsibilities to attend to. You might wonder if you have seasonal depression: depression triggered by the loss of daylight during winter.

            To make matters even more difficult, you feel like you should be happy. Everyone around you seems to be in a celebratory, holiday mood. But for you, thinking of the holidays brings up dread, sadness, and loneliness. You’re not quite sure why, but you know this is not your favorite time of year.

Seasonal depression and the shorter day

The winter change in sunlight exposure tends to signal sad feelings. You’re used to seeing the sun when you’re up in the morning and at the end of the day as you wind down for the night. When the light signal travels down our optic nerve, from our retinas to the occipital lobe (visual field processing), it passes the hypothalamus. Our hypothalamus is responsible for the regulation of many bodily functions, and is closely tied to our limbic system (emotional processing). The more light signal that flows past the hypothalamus, the more it stimulates our mood. With less light, our motivation and mood tends to be lower during this time of year.

Seasonal depression has to do with your memory

Emotional priming and conditioning can be another relevant factor in your mood changes. As the weather slowly gets colder and the amount of sunlight you see during the day begins to decrease, your brain knows that winter is approaching. You’ve been primed to know that these kinds of changes mark the beginning of the Fall and holiday season, which then brings up procedural memories – you begin to feel just like you felt at other winters. In fact, our minds are biased: our brains are better at remembering negative or painful events than positive events. This is where conditioning comes in; you’ve begun to grow conditioned to feel a certain way as you notice the changes happening at the start of the season. You begin to slow down and feel sensitive in ways that typically don’t happen during other times of the year.

            As you notice these external and internal changes happening, instead of sinking deeper into your sadness and succumbing to your feelings, it’s important to be intentional in taking care of yourself. Although doing so may not completely irradicate how you’re feeling, it may at least help mitigate those feelings and decrease the intensity of them.

Things You Can Do to Take Care of Yourself During This Time.

1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling.

Instead of trying to push your feelings away and attempt to ignore them creeping up on you, acknowledge them. You can do this by simply journaling down your thoughts and feelings at some point during the day – whether that be in the morning before you start your day or at night as you get ready for bed. It can feel scary to admit difficult feelings you’re experiencing, but it can also bring so much relief. It’s okay to feel the way you do; you don’t have to work so hard to deny those feelings.

2. Connect With a Friend.

It’s so easy to hole up in your room or home and not prioritize your social needs when you’re feeling down. Everyone seems to be particularly busy around the holidays and you don’t want to feel like a burden to your friends. But by not making time for your friendships, you end up exacerbating your feelings of loneliness and isolation. Instead of contributing to those feelings, reach out to a friend and get a meal together. Go on a walk together. Grab a drink together. Plan a time to meet virtually for long distance friendships. Do something that will help you feel connected with the people you care about, rather than feel isolated and alone. Sometimes it helps to have dates on the calendar when you know you’ll have a welcomed meeting with a friend.

3. Set Boundaries.

Setting boundaries can feel like a scary or daunting task but it doesn’t have to be. During a time when you’re feeling more sensitive, it’s so valuable to know and respect your own boundaries in order to take care of yourself. Say yes to the social and holiday gatherings you feel good about; say no to the ones that you dread. For events that aren’t possible to excuse yourself from, set time limits for how long you’re willing to be present for. It’s okay to scoot out after you’ve reached your limit. There’s endless possibilities to things that you can set boundaries for – make it personal to you. It may be difficult initially to hold yourself to your boundaries but doing so is a way to be kind to yourself during a time that feels tough.

Your Feelings Are Valid.

During this time of year that’s meant to be “Holly Jolly,” know that you aren’t the only one who may be feeling the exact opposite of Holly Jolly. Bottom line is that it is okay for you to feel this way; it is okay that you tend to struggle with seasonal depression at this point each year. Be gentle and kind to yourself as you ride out the waves of this season.

If you find yourself wanting to explore and process your feelings further, reach out to a professional for help. That’s another way you can take care of yourself during this time that brings up a range of conflicting emotions.