A few years ago, I moved from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. All went well for the first few months. Then, the winter hit. Suddenly, the sky was gray. Then the sky was gray. Then....a few months later, the sky was gray.
Then the snow hit. At first it was one of those magical, cozy flurries. I stood watching it fall from inside the warm house, through a picture window of ancient glass in an adorable circa 1920s home.
By week three, it was no longer magical. I was cold. The kids were restless. School was either cancelled or delayed for what seemed like months-on-end. We all had colds. Sledding lost its luster, and I refused to go outside.
The days got really, really long.
I began noticing odd trends in my behavior. The usual suspects didn't shock me: low-level depression, fatigue and general ennui.
What did shock me were subtler behaviors: inability to make decisions, wandering around the house in an aimless fog, low appetite and occasional crying jags.
I went to a doctor who shrugged and said, "I can give you some meds." I went to a therapist who shrugged and said, "Maybe you just want to be unhappy?"
So I went home and googled my symptoms and learned about SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder. Boom.
I made and executed a plan and along the way learned How to Beat the Winter Blues:
1. Move Your Body...And Your Brain
I took up tennis. Tennis wasn't my life's dream or some hidden passion I'd been neglecting for years. It was simply a sport I could do indoors, which used my entire body and, most importantly, engaged my brain. Having ridden horses before, I knew the value of physical exercise that also engages the brain, so when I thought about how to get moving in that gloomy winter, I knew I needed more than walking on a treadmill or running or phoning it in at a Zumba class. I booked lessons with a tennis instructor and began learning. Within two weeks, I felt better.
While it's difficult to think of exercise during a dreary winter, finding a way to keep active (physically and mentally) is such a balm. I always felt better after those lessons. A few weeks into my new program, I began taking my racket and ball to the court near our home and hitting balls against the wall myself. Soon, I was playing tennis regularly, with my husband or teacher, sometimes with my kids. It really helped pull me out of the slump.
2. Leave the House
I made myself a deal. I told myself that if I went to Target (Starbucks) every single day and wrote 1500 words in a neglected novel I'd been working on for years, I could go home and flop down on the sofa or even get back in bed. But I had to go to Starbucks, and I had to write the words. Period.
I never once went home and got back into bed. Getting out of the house reset something inside of me. I'd spent entire weeks not leaving the house other than taking my kids to school. That was unhealthy for me. Once I bundled myself up, hauled myself to Starbucks and actually went inside, I felt a renewed energy to keep going. The days of getting back into bed were over.
3. Say Yes to Socializing
The last thing I wanted to do during this period was meet someone for coffee, attend a dinner party or (worst of all) host a social event at my home. Realizing that isolating myself wasn't doing me any favors, and acknowledging that it would be a tough start, I began asking friends to get together. At first, it felt monumental. I had to get dressed in more than workout clothes. I had to drive to a coffee shop. I had to order a scone that tasted like cardboard to my depressed tastebuds. But over time, it helped. A lot. I began coming back to life, one coffee date after another. I recall one in particular, a coffee date at the local Starbucks. I was meeting a woman I'd known casually but not personally. Turns out she was going through the same thing, and as we sat there sipping our lattes, we both found some relief in not being alone.
I told a few friends how I felt, and although they didn't share my winter blues, they were supportive. We began to joke about it. They began to call me up for more dinner parties and evening walks. We went to movies. We got the kids together. Slowly, I began to unfold from the tight little ball I'd curled up into.
4. Embrace the Suck
Perhaps the most important thing I did when I began this plan was to embrace the suck. I knew it wasn't going to feel great right away. I knew I'd still struggle with gray skies and endless snow. So, I didn't expect to feel better in days or even weeks (although that did happen). I knew I wasn't going to feel like going to play tennis or meet a friend for coffee or get out of the house, but I did it anyway. I wanted to feel better in the long term more than I wanted to feel better in the moment, and I knew that continuing to isolate myself, sit in my pajamas and eat bags of cinnamon bears wasn't a road I wanted to keep trucking.
Most of what changes us, even if it's seasonal or over the course of a shorter period of time, involves some suck. Embracing that from the beginning helped keep me going when it did, inevitably, suck.
5. Know It's Temporary
This was huge for me for two reasons: one, I realized I wouldn't feel this way forever. Two, I realized whatever I needed to do to pull myself out of it didn't need to last forever either. I didn't have to take tennis for 10 years (in fact, I never took another lesson once we left PA). I didn't have to write 1500 words every day for the rest of my life. I didn't have to boost my social life as much in the summer or after a move.
Realizing it wasn't forever took all the weight and pressure off making decisions to help myself. It lightened those decisions so that I didn't overthink them or feel bogged down by them. I just had to get through that winter.
Once I was through the deepest part of the winter woods, I was able to go even further toward feeling better. I was able to host dinner parties, sort through the house and host a garage sale, volunteer at the kids' school (and enjoy it) and send that novel out to twenty agents, which is no small feat.
I decorated the house, baked cupcakes, took day trips and ultimately enjoyed most of the 10 months we spent in PA.
It wasn't easy. Those were some very dark months. When I hit the Arizona sunshine, I stepped out of the car and turned my head to the sky and said a prayer of thanks, even if it was 115 degrees outside.
For anyone out there struggling with either Seasonal Effective Disorder or just a case of the winter blues, I hope these tips are helpful and that you find your own plan to execute. The worst feeling in the world is being held hostage by emotions we don't understand and feel victim to.
On that note...Happy Monday! We're still snowed in here in sunny NC, and every single day I look up at that beautiful blue sky and thank the Lord for sending rays of sunshine my way!