Rethinking SAD: Creating a Winter Oasis

Learning how to cope—and thrive—with seasonally affected moods

Posted Feb 10, 2014

One thing I might find more frustrating than the polar vortex is the annual onslaught of mainstream news articles about seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Only because it's the same advice year after year: exercise, buy a sun lamp, and have your doctor check your Vitamin D level. Okay, did that, still feeling kind of crappy. So now what?

I think what bothers me the most is that the articles often contain cutesy phrases like “knock out depression”, “put the smackdown on SAD”, or “beat the blues.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling lousy I’m not exactly in the mood to jump in the boxing ring to deliver depression a TKO punch. And when we treat our “bad mood” like it’s the enemy, we might just be setting ourselves up for a long and difficult bout in the ring. 

I believe our culture tends to make a fundamental error when it conceptualizes negative moods as intruders we must stave off. I believe we can do much better at seeing our whole spectrum of moods as parts of ourselves to be witnessed and experienced. What if we reimagine mood as more like a dance partner than a sparring partner? Allowing all of our moods to show up at the metaphorical dinner table, not as uninvited guests, but as wise elders with lessons to share.

Our moods and emotions are intertwined with the world around us, and the environment within us. I think of them as infinite invisible threads weaving together our behaviors with our memories, associations, connections to our environment, and relationships with one another. Each thread serves a purpose, has a story.

I recall one winter over a decade ago when I was feeling particularly mired in the long gray season. That was the winter I truly learned what it meant to witness and honor all of my moods and the messages of my body, as opposed to hating those parts that felt like suffering. I learned to witness and dance with the discomfort of a depressed mood without judging it so harshly for showing up on the floor.

This was the dance: Over the course of that winter, I worked with a counselor to redefine my rigid beliefs about winter and find a rhythm I could move to—personal ways to give meaning to the season. First, I learned how to witness, honor, and appreciate aspects of winter rather than blanket the entire season with resentment. Then, to notice and appreciate the messages my body was sending, and to give myself permission to accept a slower, gentler pace. Finally, I learned how to incorporate symbolic objects into my home that reference what I love about warmer seasons and long for in the winter. This, a process I now refer to as creating a winter oasis... 

1. Engage Your Senses. Intentionally incorporate into your environment ways to frequently engage your senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. These are structures for helping you feel connected to your environment and stimulated when things feel “blah”.

The first winter I experimented with the oasis concept, I bought calming essential oils. Now I burn natural wood incense that creates the pleasant association of a cozy wood fire. I also listen to soothing and uplifting music, or bands that conjure fond summer memories.

This Christmas cactus currently brightens my winter oasis.

2. Connect with the Elements. Brainstorm ways to incorporate into your home the classical four elements of life: earth, water, fire, and air. One might also consider the Chinese tradition of Wu Xing, where the focus is on the five virtues: water, wood, fire, metal, and earth.

My current home has a fireplace, so the hearth is where I light incense and have also placed a small tabletop water fountain decorated with smooth stones and driftwood I’ve picked from the beach. Nearby, I’ve placed a Christmas cactus that flowers prolifically during the winter. In this space, the elements of wood, fire, earth, and water engage the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch. It’s my main living area and it’s my winter oasis—especially on those gray days when I don’t even want to catch a glimpse of the snow outside!

My water fountain incorporates several "summer" elements.

3. Stay Present. This is true for any season, whatever the mood. Cultivating a sense of everyday mindfulness helps us avoid the rumination of the past and the anxiety of the future. Mindful attention to a task at hand can boost productivity and assuage the desperation for spring.

4. Stay Connected. We must take responsibility for our engagement with the world around us. This is especially important in the winter when many people are more likely to isolate. This is about reaching out when we’re in need and extending a hand when we see others suffering. Find ways to laugh, and reach out and hug someone.

This is also about seeking out opportunities where we might have previously assumed there were none. For example, being more open to outdoor activities in the winter. One way of engaging is to adopt a “photographer’s eye” and start taking photos of beautiful scenes only winter can provide; maybe sharing them on social media. I took up winter hiking and bird watching and always have my camera handy. I also invested in warm clothing so I could rebrand snow shoveling as cardio. It gets me out of the house, I meet new neighbors, and connect with nature. Plus, I hate going to the gym.

I used to think of winter as symbolic of things ending or dying; and don’t get me wrong, some winter days can still be tough. But I’ve also practiced thinking of winter as the Earth preparing for spring… my favorite season. Spring flowers don’t know to bloom without receiving a cue from the cold. So I take a cue from nature and listen to my body’s need to take things slower, get more rest, and make more effort to stay engaged with life. And to honor those infinite invisible threads that keep us connected to life, no matter the season.

On a final note, I by no means want to diminish the value of talking to a doctor about Vitamin D deficiency or using a sun lamp. And physicaI movement is imperative. I believe these are all valuable tools in the toolkit for those coping with seasonally affected moods. In fact, I wrote this entire article under the faithful beacon of my Happy Lite!