How to Really Care for a Loved One with Seasonal Affective Disorder
On the coldest winter mornings, we often experience a physical taxation: our feet flinch on the hardwoods, our legs move a bit arthritically, and as we enter the day, we notice an overall slowing of body. Even the young are impeded by their marshmallow coats. For some people, the season pries its way past a regular chill of the bones, and they find their very dispositions are caught adrift. Both my husband and my dad can identify with this, and through the years my problem-solving self has been frustrated at how hard it can be to help.
There is plenty of great advice on the web about how to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), including lists of products that simulate natural light and myriad noonday exercise tips. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I look at these my brain kind of shorts out. It’s hard enough to implement my own self-care habits, let alone someone else’s. The how-to slideshows all begin to feel the same: like receiving only the first half of a recipe, just the ingredient list with no direction on how to make it all work together in context of our already busy schedules and depleted energy reserves.
Thankfully, I have managed to find a few unexpected things that seem to really help. They’re less of an itemized list and more of a whole production, based on turning the things that are already part of our routines into better mood-balancing habits. This is admittedly a looser translation of the typical advice, but it seems to serve us well in those times when accessible comforts are a must.
Whenever it is daylight, open all the blinds. Always let as much light in a possible. Approach your loved one with lightness of spirit, casting off any impulse to become frustrated with them or to judge. Right now they need your patience. Use your best judgment in knowing when constructive criticism is absolutely necessary. Winter imposes heaviness enough, and they are likely already doing it to themselves. Your role is to bring light.
Start by putting two sticks of butter in the sun to soften. This will be a tangible reminder for you to delay any self-improvement-type workshopping until you can detect in your loved one a state of readiness.
From a medical standpoint, purchasing a light box is a great idea if you have the money. Right now it’s on our “someday” list, and that’s okay. Aside from bringing as much light as possible inside your home, encourage your loved one to spend time outdoors. For this purpose, the need for shoveling the driveway or walking the dog will prove convenient. Your loved one may need an extra nudge initially, so offer them something to look forward to when the hard work is complete, such as hot coffee or—if you’re feeling really ambitious—follow a recipe from The Pioneer Woman.
When the butter softens, drop it into a standing mixer and combine with cane and brown sugars briefly to form a pale molasses paste. Picture a smiling Robert Farrar Capon as you pay no mind to calories—they have already burned off.
Movement combats winter sluggishness, but sometimes a daily workout just isn’t going to happen. Notice the things that give your loved one an emotional boost. Sometimes these don’t involve physical activity but are energizing in other ways. Your person may light up over spicy Thai food or even a fun board game, so if you need to gather a group of friends and play five lively rounds of Dominion, just do it!
In your mixer, crack an egg and let the glossy white stream completely. Increase the speed and combine well, then repeat. Add real vanilla extract and notice the sweet, uplifting aroma as the paddle swirls. Vanilla is thought to be a potential antidepressant, so go ahead and allow a few extra drops to spill over the teaspoon as you pour.
Good conversation is a natural mood enhancer. It is a simple way of opening the mind to new ideas—the ideas of others and not just your own—and their value, within the context of a caring relationship. It also connects us with others and improves our relationships. Try putting down your phone for a while and spend some time being truly present with those around you.
Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt (an extra pinch will do miraculous things) in a separate bowl. Empty the dry ingredients into the wet and stir just until basic uniformity, with slight variation, is reached.
Sometimes, all of these things will feel like they aren’t working. Sometimes, the melancholy will start to rub off on you. What then? There’s a point at which we all need to say, “Okay, this sucks.” You have tried everything. So have they. It’s not getting any easier. Admitting this out loud to one another affirms that you are a team, which can often provide a needed measure of resolve.
The final ingredients make up the bulk of this recipe. Heap three cups of old fashioned oats into the mixing bowl, along with an additional cup of chocolate chips. Measure out a full cup of raw walnuts and roll them in your fingers until their curled edges break off into little, caramel-blonde bits. This is where you take the mixing bowl out and stir by hand. The mixture will be very dense and difficult to work with, but you will note in the troubleshooting section of this recipe that this is actually correct. Spend as much time as it takes. Lean into it a little.
Drop the dough in tablespoons onto parchment papered baking sheets. Bake lightly, pulling them out just before you think they are ready. This is one of those times where impatience is okay, especially if you like chewy cookies. Give them five minutes to set on the pan, and they’re ready. Serve with coffee and preferably in good company, near a bright window.
Supporting our loved ones in times of depression is often very intuitive—it’s a balancing act that benefits from our creativity. Sometimes you may need to encourage something really practical like sitting next to a light box, taking medication, or exercising. Other times they may just need to feel loved and cared for, whatever that means for them. Since you are close to them, you probably have some excellent ideas that are tailored to that person. In this bleak homestretch to Candlemas, maybe keep the holiday lights up a little while longer. Hang onto that graciously glowing spirit for the sake of those around you, and remember: a balanced diet produces wonderful results, and so do homemade cookies.