Live Through This

Blue Christmas

For those for whom this isn’t the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

It’s the holiday season, and you must be happy. Cheerful music is on all the radio stations and the television will only show movies about reindeer and elves and wacky gift hijinks. Your neighbors’ houses are all lit up and everyone is having a party! AND YOU’RE INVITED!!!

But what if you’re just not feeling it? What if you want to retreat into a cave, skip the gifts and parties, and hibernate until spring?

First things first: YOU FEEL SAD BECAUSE YOU ARE NORMAL. It is normal to feel sad, even in December. Even that guy who covers his entire front lawn with inflatable Santas gets cranky when he goes to the mall and ends up fighting crowds and waiting in a line 30 deep at the register as “Jingle Bells” is repeatedly pumped into his ears.

But some of us are more than just annoyed with the holiday hype. If you’re like me, you just start irrationally hating everything when winter rolls around. Or technically, it starts in the fall, when you start waking up in the dark, thinking, I’m going to quit school and life and just lie in bed every day playing Angry Birds…no, I hate those stupid pigs and their stupid faces, I’m just going to sleep for the REST OF MY LIFE.

What I have is called seasonal depression, technically Seasonal Affective Disorder (with the super-appropriate acronym SAD), and it’s caused by, among other things, the shorter days this time of year. If you already have depression (like me), it might get worse in winter. And depression is a sneaky thing—you feel like whatever is bugging you is totally logical, and you don’t realize that “Oh hey, it’s winter, maybe my parents and teachers haven’t actually turned into demons. It’s just my confused brain chemicals.”

A lot of people don’t think that the term “depression” applies to them, because they associate the label with dramatic things like cutting or suicide. But most cases of depression are more subtle. You might feel overwhelmed by normal stress. Your self-esteem might take a huge dive. You might not have the energy for schoolwork. You may even have physical symptoms like stomach pain or headaches—I had nausea so bad that I had to skip breakfast for eight years or so.

But once you recognize that your emotions aren’t quite in line with the world around you, you have the opportunity to do something about it. Without getting all “Winter tips to beat the blues!” on you, here is what has helped me:

1. Relax, relax, relax.

I’m not going to say “just cheer up already,” because that’s the worst thing to say to a depressed person. If depression were a choice, no one would have it. Depressed people have to make an extra effort to be happy and relaxed, but that effort is worth it. I took up meditation to fight my anxiety. Exercise will help clear your mind too, and regular exercise is an actually proven treatment for depression. There’s also this thing called progressive muscle relaxation that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE if you have trouble with sleeping, muscle tenseness, or anxiety. Seriously, try it.

Schedule moments when you’re not allowed to worry—easier said than done, but if you can turn your anxiety off even for a few minutes, you’ll at least have those few minutes of freedom. As I said earlier, I meditate, so I usually go into a meditative state and think of nothing for my scheduled non-worrying time, but you might find it easier to listen to some music or read a book to give you something other than your own thoughts to concentrate on.

And don’t feel guilty about having fun. Your brain might try to tell you that you don’t deserve it, but your brain is a liar. Everyone needs fun. Especially those of us who don’t turn into cheerful automatons at the first notes of “Jingle Bell Rock.”

2. Know your limits.

On the other hand, it’s OK not to have fun too. If you’re at the end of your rope freaking out over that big paper due right before break and finding time to buy gifts and suddenly you’ve been offered the lead in the school play…you don’t have to accept. It’s OK to turn things down occasionally if they sound like they’re going to be more stress than fun.

I have anxiety along with my depression, and I get overwhelmed at parties. My family loves to party. And I love my family, but sometimes all the noise and people get to me, and I have to be alone. I find a quiet room and take some deep breaths before heading back into the din. I don’t go to clubs or parties where I know there will be a lot of loud music and loud people, because I know I won’t have fun. Know your limits, and go ahead and turn an invitation down or take a break if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

This can be difficult, especially if you don’t feel like you have supportive adults around. Finding even one friend you can talk to helps. But if you’re comfortable asking for professional help, do it. It’s a big, scary step, but it’s so worth it.

I finally went to my college counseling center after weeks of an unrelenting headache and a total inability to get my work done. I told them I needed “study help.” The counselor knew right away that my study skills weren’t the problem. I was given medication and therapy, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that within days of starting meds, I was a new person. I had energy to do my schoolwork, my lifelong nausea actually cleared up, and I could talk to people without worrying that opening my mouth might ruin everything. For the first time in my life, I could live without crippling doubt and fear.

But if you just need to talk, or you don’t want to go through your parents, there are other options. Do a Google search for your local mental-health hotlines. Make an appointment with your school guidance counselor. Maybe talk to a relative or a friend’s parents, if you feel more comfortable with them. Or even just vent to your friends, and listen to them if they say you need help. Sometimes we can’t see how bad things have gotten in our own heads.

Finally, you have to accept that you may never feel as happy and well-adjusted as most of the people around you. First, stop comparing yourself to them, because for all you know they’re putting on an act to cover their own issues. Second, know that it’s OK not to be happy all the time. Your goal should be to find the middle ground between creepy forced cheerfulness and being miserable. Do what you can, and since it is December, enjoy the good parts of the holiday season: the presents, the food, whatever it is that you can actually stand. My favorite part? Winter Solstice, which is on December 22nd this year. Once the solstice is over, the days start getting longer and my SAD starts losing its mojo. Best gift of the season, right there. ♦

29 Comments

  • Naomi December 7th, 2011 3:16 PM

    1. i can completely and totally relate to all that nausea racheal! glad i am not the only one
    2. my therapist gave me a progressive muscular relaxation cd agessss ago now and i have to admit, even though i found it effective sometimes i was even too anxious to put it on. so i meditate now and again! and oh my gosh is good for everybody to not have even only a few minutes where you are not thinking about the next thing you have to do.
    3. i like winter! my depression is (usually, fingers crossed) better in the colder months! weird i suppose, i don’t know. the anxiety is pretty much the same though i think.
    4. parties and noise make me anxious too. only in small doses.
    5. this is long but it’s basically to say, thank you for writing this rachael!

  • Toilets December 7th, 2011 3:16 PM

    Thank you for this.

    I’d also like to add the joyous invention of light boxes to your list – I’ve got a few manic depressives in my family, and they all say that their light boxes really help them cope with the short daylight hours.

  • em-iy-aye December 7th, 2011 3:19 PM

    fabulous and all good things up in here :):):)

  • fizzingwhizbees December 7th, 2011 3:21 PM

    This was a very interesting article for me – I have depression and I know a lot of people with depression find that it gets worse around the holidays, plus that scary statistic about Christmas having the highest number of suicides. I’ve always been the opposite: the holiday season cheers me up pretty significantly and makes me feel a lot better, which I suppose is the more “expected” reaction but is actually a lot less common among depressed people. So it was interesting to get an insight into what the rest of y’all are feeling.

  • absolutewannabe December 7th, 2011 3:23 PM

    ” I’m going to quit school and life and just lie in bed every day playing Angry Birds…no, I hate those stupid pigs and their stupid faces, I’m just going to sleep for the REST OF MY LIFE.”

    This thought went through my head not two minutes ago. Please stop reading my mind.

    absolutewannabe.blogspot.com

  • landlockedblues December 7th, 2011 3:29 PM

    Thank you so much for this article! Teen depression is so serious, and it’s really tiring to be told that ‘it’s just a phase and i’ll outgrow it’. This was very helpful (:

  • Marie December 7th, 2011 3:33 PM

    I have S.A.D. too. I always joke about it but it’s pretty bad. AND I live in So Cal! I am scared of the thought of me living where there is real winter! The first week of time change was terrible. I was such a bitch! It’s getting better now because I’m trying to exercise a lot. It’s helping! Still sucks tho. I can’t wait til the spring time change comes.

  • littleredrachelhood December 7th, 2011 4:05 PM

    this was so relevant for me, thank you.
    I love that Rookie does these frank, first-person articles about mental health issues, as they affect so many teenagers yet are still considered ‘taboo’.

    I suffer from anxiety and depression which is definitely aggravated by the winter days – it can often creep up on you because you don’t think the weather/day length could have such a big effect!
    As a Christian I find it is also quite difficult because there is even more reason for you to be joyful at Christmas, or at least to seem that way.

    Thank you for the tips!

  • I.ila December 7th, 2011 4:08 PM

    I take dips in depression, and get REALLY depressed over the weekends. No one knows about it, though, because I’m good at masking it with a general bubbliness at school. This really just depresses me more because no one really knows what I’m thinking. I too have a lot of trouble starting my homework.

  • darksideoftherainbow December 7th, 2011 4:49 PM

    it’s weird, i love the winter bc it gets dark faster and the darkness help me to be more confident. it sheilds people from my “ugliness” and helps me to do things more easily, like without getting anxious about it. things like crossing the street when there are cars stopped at the light where the drivers and passengers can see me, or even to walk faster. BUt the winter time is also terrible for me. in fact, it can be the middle of summer and if i become depressed, i can smell the winter. the overall feeling and smell of winter time comes to me in a wave.

  • Kathryn December 7th, 2011 5:06 PM

    Thank you! I’m glad to know that I’m not alone. I get depressed a lot, especially in school. And the weekends. So… all of the time. Hah. I’ve been feeling really depressed this week (especially today), and I was just thinking how horrible it is that it’s only wednesday, but maybe this article can help me get through the week quicker, so thanks for that!

    I agree with absolute wannabe, I was just thinking that in school today! I was actually thinking about how I wish I could move, then I was thinking that no where else would be different (I live in a small town, so that article from a little while ago was really nice to read), then I was like… I should just sleep forever… haha.

    Actually, a lot of Rookie articles have applied to my life lately! Like today in biology when I was thinking about the post from last night, about how boys mature later than girls, and then some people in my class started arguing about whether or not they do. haha.

    Anyways, sorry about the super long post, and thank you for being so helpful.

  • tomorrowwillbebetter December 7th, 2011 5:26 PM

    Thanks so much for this article! I have anxiety disorder that has led to depression in the past and I’ve always noticed it gets waaay worse in the winter. I’m so glad I’m not the only one!!!!

  • brynntheredonethat December 7th, 2011 5:34 PM

    This is my first Christmas ever with depression (I’m usually the annoying kid who’s really excited about Thanksgiving and Christmas), and the other day my mom finally found a counselor for me to go to. My first appointment is tomorrow. It was really scary telling her, but it feels SO much better than hiding it every moment of every day and pretending like your fine. I can say from experience that even though I waited far too long to tell my mom, it’s an awesome feeling knowing that I could be so much worse, but because I did tell, my chances of being genuinely happy (even if I’m *not* “cured”) for the holidays are so much greater. I may actually have a merry Christmas, and who knows? it could be the start of me getting back on my feet again.

    PS: Thank you, once again, for reading my mind, Rookie.

  • Stellaaaaarrr December 7th, 2011 5:40 PM

    The biggest thing that has ever helped me through depression was finding this through my chiropractor/naturopath.
    http://www.enneagraminstitute.com

    I happen to be a type four, http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/TypeFour.asp and reading through the descriptions ALWAYS helps put life back into perspective when I’m going through a rough patch. Could be worth a read for some insight =)

  • Chloe Elizabeth December 7th, 2011 7:25 PM

    I totally can relate to this article. I have SAD thats growing progressively worse each year. I live up in Washington too, it gets dark at 3:30, and it turns me into a perpetually tired, cranky, lifeless, teary mess. After a few weeks of this being real bad, my boyfriend finally convinced me to do some stuff about it. Just this past week, I’ve started regular cardio, taking melatonin to help regulate my brain chemicals, and taking iron supplements for my iron deficiency that also contributes to me being a lazy, emotional blob. I can feel myself starting to perk up though, and just in time for Christmas!

  • KusterBeaton December 7th, 2011 9:32 PM

    I’ve never known anyone else having that everyday morning nausea. I haven’t been able to eat anything before 11 am without feeling nauseous and gagging and just overall terrible. I always thought it was just that I wasn’t a morning person, or that I wasn’t hungry. Never even thought that it might be related to depression. Thanks so much for this, really insightful and I definitely learned something.

    • SarahBee December 8th, 2011 12:00 AM

      Just want to be one more voice letting you know you’re not alone. I went through about 10 years of not being able to eat breakfast (10am always seemed to be my mark!) and to this day I still struggle getting myself to want to eat in the mornings even though I’m not suffering from the nausea anymore. My therapist just recommended something that has really helped me change this; forgive me if it’s a suggestion you’ve already heard. She suggested that I get up just a little earlier each day in order to carve 15-20 minutes out of my morning routine to just do whatever I want. Eating breakfast was not really a stipulation but I’ve found that by setting aside this time I think about food in a different way and take the time to make myself something that I really want instead of just trying to force myself to eat because I know I’m supposed to. Of course, this may just be the case with me but I figured it never hurts to pass it on. :)

  • Veganpop December 7th, 2011 10:00 PM

    Thank you for this. I don’t really know what I want to say, but I related to this a lot.

  • SarahBee December 7th, 2011 11:45 PM

    Ah…where you when I was a teenager? All the years of no breakfast due to stomach aches, and the worrying and the internal paralysis, the mortification I felt but couldn’t understand when my parents first took me to a therapist… And I won’t even get started on how long it took me to realize that the setting of the sun in the winter months is like a dimmer switch for my mood. I wish I had had a resource like this to keep me sane and feeling normal. But I will settle for having it now. :)

    To your wonderful encouraging words about being brave enough to ask for help I would simply add: don’t be afraid to find different help if you don’t really mesh with the person you’ve got. It’s taken me years of feeling obligated to stick with one person to finally find the right therapist and realize that I really did deserve to find someone to help me who really did understand my values and perspective.

  • Madeleine December 8th, 2011 1:27 AM

    I’ve found that replacing regular lightbulbs with full-spectrum (Chromolux) bulbs helps me a lot during the winter. The Chromolux bulbs essentially produce sunlight, so they supplement the small amount of real sunlight exposure during the winter months.

    Oh, and listening to music definitely helps distract me from the many problems at hand, and what I choose to play tells me a lot about what’s going on emotionally.

  • weepygonzales December 8th, 2011 11:48 AM

    My depression usually strikes in the summertime, and I’m happiest in the winter!

  • heygirl December 8th, 2011 11:52 AM

    I can totally relate to this. This past summer I was more depressed than ever before (ironic, eh?) Most people don’t realize that there are serious physical effects; I couldn’t fall asleep for hours and I was never hungry. I pulled out of it with regular therapy but this article helped me realize that everyone’s depression is different. Still, no depressed person wants to be told, “just get happy, it’s not that hard”

  • warreno December 8th, 2011 3:17 PM

    ‘Finally, you have to accept that you may never feel as happy and well-adjusted as most of the people around you.’

    To be fair, a lot of people are faking it. They’re nowhere near as happy and well-adjusted as they present themselves as being. I think their smiles are wired in place.

  • soybrain December 10th, 2011 9:54 AM

    good article. I don’t really like the origins of christmas, with jesus and stuff, I think it’s stupid. Actually I told my teacher I was a satanist and refused to participate in activities related to christmas, haha. I lied, of course. I like to celebrate it though, with my family, to get presents and eat candy etc etc. that’s nice, but I’m always so down during winter. like, really depressed. so I guess I’ll continue to celebrate christmas, it makes me feel a little better.

  • koolkat December 10th, 2011 6:47 PM

    I love Christmas! I’ve often wondered if I have depression, but my self confidence is so small I would never actually tell anyone out of fear I am wrong or something.

    I guess Winter makes me sadder. I’ve been really paranoid and perpetually sad at the moment–maybe this is why…

  • Zsofi December 13th, 2011 10:54 AM

    I want to thank you all, because Rookie truly changed my life. I have extreme anxiety with nausea and headaches and rapid heartbeat. I also used to cut, and starve myself when I was younger. Sometimes I’m perfectly OK, but sometimes I feel like I’m just unable to be happy again, even though I have a great family and some real close friends. I was afraid to talk about it, because I beleived people would either think I’m just whiny or that I’m crazy. So thank you once again for making me feel normal, anf giving me hope! :)
    Ps.: I’m sorry if my english sucks, it’s not my native language…

  • Nishat December 13th, 2011 1:57 PM

    It was so good to read about somebody else who had SAD. It gets so hard for me because sometimes I feel horrible for venting and crying to my boyfriend, and he asks me to tell him why and I can’t explain why except for the weather. It’s really horrible, but sometimes taking Vitamin D supplements help, or having bright lights around (you can buy special lamps for the lack of sunlight.) Anyways, super interesting and nice to know I’m not alone :’)

  • Sar27 December 14th, 2011 11:31 AM

    a good homeopathic remedy instead of depression medications is St. John’s Wort- Yogi tea brand sells them. pour hot water over and drink- I swear it’s kept me alive more than once

  • Johann7 December 16th, 2011 12:39 PM

    SAD is correlated with lower levels of vitamin D, of which your body cannot produce as much due to less (and less-direct) sunlight and less skin exposure to the sunlight that is present (results from studies on causal links between low vitamin D and SAD, as well as the efficacy of vitamin D treatments, are mixed). A number of studies suggest that vitamin D supplements can help, as can consuming fish high in vitamin D and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid).