It's that time of year again. When I wake up in the morning, it's still dark outside. And by the early afternoon, it's already getting dark again. In between, the days are cold, wet and gloomy.
This is unpleasant enough as it is, but for me and many other people like me, it doesn't end there. I've always had depressive tendencies and in the winter time, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or winter depression rears it's head.
If you suffer from this problem as well, this article is good news. Here, I lay out the experiment I did that helped me deal with seasonal depression and got me to a place where I was functioning better and feeling much better.
And it all starts with a lightbulb...
Bad Morning, Bad Day
I noticed that for me, the quality of my day hinges largely on the quality of my sleep. Ever since I'd read Matthew Walker's book Why We Sleep I've been prioritzing sleep and rest in my life. I've generally had good sleep habits for a long time, now.
But during winter season, my good habits started slipping. And as my seasonal depression crept in, I started experiencing 2 things more often:
- I couldn't get myself out of bed in the morning. I'd sleep in late, but still not feel rested when I got up.
- I'd get myself out of bed at a reasonably early time, but I'd feel like a zombie.
In either case, this lousy start to the day seemed to set the tone. My energy levels stayed low and my mood stayed as gloomy as the weather for the rest of the day.
And then, because I'd had a bad day, I was less likely to get good sleep the next night, kicking off a vicious cycle.
This led me to the conclusion that getting better sleep was going to be an instrumental part of my experiment in overcoming SAD.
Good Light, Good Morning?
Whenever I've been camping, staying in the countryside or living in a place like Bali, I've experienced better sleep, effortlessly.
What all these things have in common is natural light exposure. I experience darkness in the evening, which makes sleep come more easily and I wake up by sunlight in the morning.
In a way, this is the opposite of what I've been experiencing this winter. There's not much light during the day and because of street lights outside my window, I use blackout curtains so there's no natural light exposure in the morning, either.
This led me to the idea of simulating natural light exposure and that's where the lightbulb comes in.
Step 1: Simulate a Sunrise in Your Bedroom
I purchased a 4-pack of LIFX smart bulbs and installed two of them in my bedroom. These smart bulbs connect to your WiFi and you can program them using an accompanying app.
In the app, I set the lightbulbs in my room to simulate a sunrise in the morning, from 7:00 to 7:30.
I chose this setup over a sunrise simulating alarm clock (like this one) for several reasons:
- I wanted to blast my entire room with bright sunlight-like light in the morning. A single light source next to my bed wasn't going to be as effective as multiple bulbs in the room.
- The sunrise alarm clocks come with loads of features I don't want. I don't want a time indicator in my bedroom (only makes you worry about how late it is, when you can't sleep). I don't want an option to hit snooze in the morning. I don't want a built in FM radio or anything like that, either.
- The bulbs are multi-purpose. I can program them to do more stuff during the day, I can use them for mood lighting etc. The sunrise alarm does only one thing.
- Last but not least: you can get multiple smart bulbs much more cheaply than you can get a decent sunrise alarm. Although LIFX are fairly expensive, you can find smart bulbs for around $10 a piece if you're on a tighter budget.
Another note about how I set up the lights: I don't keep my phone in my bedroom, which means there's no convenient way for me to turn the lights off in the morning. I can switch off the light on by bedstand, but the main ceiling light is out of reach. If I wanted to turn it off to go back to bed, I'd have to first get out of bed. At that point, I might as well stay up.
I believe that removing any kind of "snooze" option is one of the best things you can do for your sleep quality.
Result: I've never found it easier to wake up in the morning than since I've installed the smart bulbs. And because it's almost impossible to keep sleeping while my bedroom is brightly lit, it means that I don't sleep in, which leads me to feel tired earlier in the evening. It's a simple and great tool for keeping my sleep cycle in check.
Step 2: Exercise (with More Light)
The book Spark by John Ratey explains in great detail how physical movement and exercise are linked to mental health. In some cases, exercise can be as effective intervention for depressed patients as perscription antidepressants.
Of course, the problem is: the more depressed you are, the harder it is to get yourself to exercise.
For my experiment, I did the following to ensure that I'd get the benefits of exercise:
- I did some exercise first thing in the morning, so I wouldn't continually put it off until "later".
- I placed a large light that I use for lighting videos in my home gym and I'd point this light at myself for additional light exposure.
- I followed the "a little is better than nothing" principle and took the pressure off. I allowed myself to do light exercise, to do whatever I felt like doing, as long as I was moving. I didn't force myself to adhere to a strict training plan.
What if you don't have a home gym or a large video light?
The good news is that it's easier than ever to find guidance on how to exercise at home, with limited space and no equipment. You can find apps, video tutorials and entire programs for this.
As for the light exposure: any kind of light exposure will help. Turn on the lights, open the curtains, bring an additional desk lamp or two into your exercise area...
The smart bulbs can help you here too: you can install them and set them to daylight temperature and maximum brightness for your workout.
Result: getting the extra light exposure felt good and made me more motivated to start and continue exercising. And exercise makes a noticeable difference to my wellbeing, so this part of the experiment was also a success.
Step 3: Gratitude (and Even More Light)
I first discovered the magic of gratitude in the book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. As it turns out, gratitude most effective ways for people to raise their happiness levels and it's been thoroughly studied in the field of positive psychology.
I've been practicing gratitude writing for many years, but for this experiment in countering the winter blues, I wanted to take it further.
Here's what I did:
- In the morning, after my exercise, I would write down things I was grateful for.
- I would primarily think about things that happened recently, to list highly specific things that I'm grateful for, rather than vague or abstract things (e.g. "I'm grateful for the tasty breakfast I had" vs. "I'm grateful for my health").
- I usually write down 3 things every day. But for this experiment, I would just keep going and write as many things to be grateful for as I could think about.
The idea behind this is simple: I just wanted to spend more time in "gratitude mode". I wanted to increase my dose of daily gratitude to counter the depressed state I was in.
In addition to this, I continued my light exposure by setting up a small light therapy device on my desk (something like this). This light shines bright, daylight-temperature light at my face for the first 30 minutes I spend at my desk.
Result: it's hard for me to assess how much of a difference this made. I believe that going from no gratitude practice at all to writing about it every day is a game changer and I recommend this to everyone. But whether the "increased dose" I experimented with was helpful, I don't know. What I can say for sure is that it felt good to spend time writing about things I'm grateful for and to be blasted with bright light while doing it.
Step 4: Hard Writing Sessions
There's one more thing I need to add, although it's a tough one. I've dealt with depressive tendencies for a long time and in my experience, one of the hardest but also most effective things you can do is to honestly confront the sources of your depression.
Now, in our culture, we are always told about the "happy chemicals" idea of depression. It goes like this: depression is a disease just like any other. It's something you're afflicted with, that leads to some kind of a chemical/hormonal imbalance in your brain. If you're depressed, your brain is "broken" and isn't creating the happy chemicals it's supposed to. The solution, of coruse, is to take a pill that fixes this imbalance.
This may sometimes be an accurate representation of what's going on, but certainly not always. The truth is, sometimes you have some damn good reasons for being depressed. Maybe there are things you've been pushing away for too long and it's coming to a head.
The first book that opened my eyes to this was Lost Connections by Johan Hari. I highly recommend this book if you or someone you know suffers from depression. Other sources that have helped me on the way have been the works of Gabor Maté and Jeff Foster's idea that when you are depressed, you need "deep rest".
How do we confront the root causes of depression? For me, the most effective approach has been through writing. More specifically, by writing about the things that are hardest to write about. By confronting the darkest shadows. By writing down the thoughts we barely even dare to think.
This kind of writing can be very hard to do, but it can also be cathartic. You can learn more about my approach to introspective writing in this podcast episode and if you're an ikario community member, you can find my crash course on the topic in the community forum.
Result: I had a few difficult topics to write about. As ever, it wasn't easy, but once I had done it, it became clear how necessary it was. It's not an instant fix for depression, but it's a significant step out of the swamp.
Your Way Out, Step by Step
If you're struggling with seasonal depression (or regular depression, for that matter), I encourage you to give the interventions laid out here a try. Nothing is a guaranteed fix, but these steps are simple and risk free. And I'd love to hear back from you to learn what your experience with them was.
And keep in mind, no matter how you feel in the moment, one thing is always true: this too shall pass.