As a mental health practitioner living in the midwest, each year I find myself seeking new ways to implement a skillful approach to managing the physical, emotional, and mental shifts that may come with the arriving winter season. Though we can anticipate this seasonal shift each year, we cannot always anticipate the ways our mood may be affected. In addition, so often we are faced with unexpected life stressors such as a job loss/transition, relationship changes, physical health changes, the loss of a loved one, financial strain, or the reminder of old wounds. When these stressors are compounded by the decrease in sunlight, drop in temperatures, and increase in weather-related barriers, it can be difficult to know how to best attend to your mental health needs. The term Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) often gets used to make sense of these changes in mood throughout the winter months. Though SAD is not considered a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5, it can provide helpful validation for these experiences, as well as an opportunity to practice acceptance and change. According to the 2015 review of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Sherri Melrose states “as the acronym so aptly illustrates, those afflicted experience feelings of sadness and loss of energy, especially during December, January, and February, around the winter solstice, when the days are shortest.” Existing research on effective treatment for SAD symptoms include increasing Vitamin D, light therapy, counseling, physical exercise, and/or medication management*.
So, what else might be helpful in managing this fluctuation in mood as we prepare for spending more time indoors? Recently, I was introduced to the Danish term “Hygge” (pronounced ‘hue-gah’) that roughly translates to creating a sense of “coziness” or “comfort.” What intrigued me about this popularized term, is its invitation to embrace the insulation of these winter months, and to promote a sense of connection with yourself and others. Knowing that the busy demands of work, home, and family don’t subside with the season, finding ways to slow down and feel present may seem nearly impossible. With so many books, apps, and gadgets out there offering new and helpful ways to practice greater balance in life, I recognize it can be difficult to create or sustain these recommended daily routine/habits when SAD-related symptoms seem loud and in charge. Which is why the concept of “Hygge” is so interesting. To me, it offers permission; Permission to find comfort within the moment; Permission to experience the feeling of being ‘cozy’ which can connect us to a child-like comfort; Permission to share connection with others in its simplest form; Permission to simply be, and to be reminded that there is light within the darkness of this season. Tending to this awareness can offer an opportunity to practice mindfulness as a way to help recharge when we frequently feel more depleted. As you navigate the ebbs and flows of this winter season, I encourage you to give yourself permission to practice “Hygge” – whether it’s wrapping up in a blanket, drinking a warm beverage, engaging in a creative outlet, lighting a candle, snuggling with a pet, or connecting with a loved one. Embracing “Hygge” may not extinguish your SAD-related symptoms completely, but it will hopefully offer the important reminder that you are resilient and deserving of coziness and comfort.
A few reminders:
-*Please contact your Primary Care Doctor if you have questions about exploring medication treatment.
-If SAD-related symptoms are feeling difficult to manage, please reach out for support from a doctor or mental health professional. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
–Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression research and treatment, 2015.