Self & Wellness

How Freelancers Can Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Allie Gray Freeland December 13th, 2018

Every November, after Daylight Savings Time hits in, I find myself in a funk. It’s not so much a full-on depression as a light fog of sadness and loneliness. The shorter days and cold weather zap my energy, making me feel less cheery than I do in spring, summer, and fall. As a freelancer—in other words, a person who must, by definition, be very self-motivated—it’s more than problematic.

This phenomenon has a name—Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, between four and six percent of US residents suffer from this mood disorder, and as many as 20 percent of the population has a mild form. It primarily affects those who live far from the equator, and generally strikes in the winter months.

As a group that’s especially prone to mood disorders and other forms of depression, freelancers should be aware of what SAD looks like and they should know how to address it. Here’s a basic primer, but if you feel like you need support, please do yourself a good turn and see your doctor or a mental health professional.

Why do people get SAD?

According to Mayo Clinic, the specific causes of SAD are not known, but disruptions in your biological circadian rhythms (or natural sleep and wake times) and a lack of vitamin D can both contribute to SAD. Changing seasons may also disrupt serotonin and melatonin levels, which regulate sleep and mood levels. Beyond this, during winter months you are more likely to stay at home due to extreme weather conditions, furthering isolating yourself from others.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of SAD usually start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping energy levels and making you feel “off.” Signs of SAD, according to Mayo Clinic are:

  • Feeling sluggish
  • Feeling down or hopeless
  • Frequent suicidal thoughts
  • Losing interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • Inability to sleep, or oversleeping
  • Low energy
  • Appetite or weight changes

How can freelancers manage SAD?

Here are four ways I’ve worked to manage my mood disorder, but, again, your health care provider is in the best position to prescribe treatment.

Get a UV light for your workspace

Bring a little alternative sunlight into your home office with UV lights or light therapy boxes. They emit the same wavelength of sunshine as the sun and can stimulate circadian rhythms and melatonin release.

Light therapy works for many people suffering from SAD, including me. But before you buy a special bulb try playing with natural light exposure in your workspace. In a recent article on home office design, Contently’s Colton Cox surfaced a 2015 study by the business psychology firm Robertson Cooper. The firm found that workers in environments with natural sunlight are 15% more engaged with creative tasks than those without. It’s worth rearranging your workspace if you can eke out the maximum amount of daylight in the winter months.

Create more connections

As a freelancer, it’s easy to become isolated, and in cold weather, it’s even easier. Connecting with others is therapeutic, but takes a little extra effort in the snow and wind.

I’ve found that scheduling social activities and joining local meet-ups and industry gatherings forces me to leave my house and interact with others. While I may not initially want to step outside into the blustering winter weather, after I’m there, I never regret going.

Take frequent breaks to stretch, exercise, or go for a walk

The last thing I want to do on a dreary winter day is slap on my gym shoes and run on the treadmill. But again, once I get going, my mood and energy levels improve.

While it’s clear exercise can improve your physical health, it also has substantial mental health benefits. According to psychologist Dr. Sarah Gingell, PhD: “Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones, which can make problems seem more manageable. The simple act of focusing on exercise can give us a break from current concerns and damaging self-talk.”

Be open about your feelings

Guess what? It’s ok to feel down sometimes. Humans are hardwired to crave sunlight, connections, nature, exercise, and other things that winter months don’t offer.

What’s critical is that you don’t isolate yourself in your own feelings. Talk to other freelancers. Find a good therapist. Just don’t go it alone.“Mental health is a complex topic, one that a blog post can, at best, only begin to unpack,” said Contently writer Danielle Antosz in a recent post on isolation. “But before we can create resources for ourselves and fellow freelancers, we must begin normalizing conversations about mental health and mental illness among our community.”

Don’t ignore the feeling of winter blues and tough out by doing nothing. And remember, if you are severely depressed or have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, get medical help immediately.

How do you combat SAD during the holidays? Share your tips and strategies on Facebook and Twitter.

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