Winter has always been one of my favorite seasons. Growing up in the Midwest and being directly on a lake, Cleveland is consistently pummeled by snowstorms and cold weather every single year. The colder months tend to not be a friend to everyone. With shortened days and longer nights, people’s moods can begin to shift. Typically, once we switch from daylight savings time to standard time, individuals can start to experience more feelings of sadness and other symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is typically defined as a type of depression that is experienced due to changes in seasons. It can be a result of poor sunlight, which has a direct impact on hormones impacted by the sun like melatonin and serotonin. It can also be triggered by increased darkness, which as humans we fear on a primal level because of the sense of unknown it brings with it. That can explain why our sympathetic nervous system and our “fight or flight” response may be triggered more frequently. No matter the reasoning behind why SAD impacts so many people during the winter, the fact of the matter is that it does, and it is a real cause of concern for a great number of people. Not only do we have to worry about increased stress and sadness, but our desire for intimacy tends to drop as well. Throw in a global pandemic and it seems like the only solution is to lock yourself inside and pray for springtime. Although this may seem inevitable, I assure you that there are other, more effective ways of coping.
SAD tends to impact about 6% of the population each year. Symptoms can include frequent feelings of sadness, difficulty focusing or paying attention, lethargy and apathy, and an inability to find enjoyment in activities that usually make you happy. It also has the ability to wipe out our sex drive and any energy we had that was devoted to it. That being said, not everyone is going to experience all of these symptoms, or even to the same severity. With COVID-19 rates increasing over the past few months, and rates of depression on the rise because of it, I think more people are going to experience some level of sadness this winter season. With more darkness coming upon us and winter on the horizon, my goal is to provide you some skills that you can put in your toolbox to help you be more prepared.
As a sex positive therapist, I talk to my clients about ways to increase desire and intimacy with one another. When the pandemic hit, it seemed like everyone’s sex drive took a punch to the gut. Creating new ways of gaining emotional and physical intimacy with your partner(s) is important. What is different now compared to March is that many of the activities we enjoyed doing over the summer may not be available to us anymore. It is hard to sit on a bench in the park when it is 10 degrees outside or go to an outdoor patio and have a drink with a friend unless it is heated by five heat lamps. The novelty of pandemic activities has most likely worn off as well as we approach winter. That doesn’t mean that we should stop and give in to the emotions we may be experiencing. Whether you are single or in a relationship, there are several techniques that can be done to not only improve feelings of happiness, including intimacy.
First things first, you need to level set with yourself. If you are someone who knows you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder every winter, make it a point NOW to start focusing on self-care strategies you can begin today. Our girl Corona (I am referring to the Coronavirus), is not going anywhere anytime soon. If you are someone who may be experiencing SAD for the first time, note that these feelings don’t need to be permanent. Humans are resilient creatures and are good at finding solutions. Also, I think it is a good idea to direct focus on the positives that come with winter. Whether it is the holidays, the snow, cuddling up on a couch with yourself, a pet, or partner, or enjoying a nice fire, there are parts of the season that we have enjoyed in the past, and still can enjoy. We know landmark events like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years will be impacted this year. So, start planning now and reframing what this will look like for you and your loved ones. Hopefully this holiday season will be one that stands alone and not one that becomes the norm, but if it does, you are already preparing yourself.
Focusing solely on therapy for a minute, I want to be an advocate for my profession. Therapists, social workers, psychologists, and licensed mental health professionals are capable of being there to assist you during this time, and they want to help. I hope by now you have realized that asking for help is not showing a sign of weakness. Instead, it shows an immense amount of strength and insight within yourself to know that you need a little more support at this time. What is even better, is that states across America have allowed for all providers to offer virtual care online. I know the idea of setting something up seems daunting and scary, and you may not find the right person at first, but once you do, the power of being seen and heard cannot be understated.
Outside of therapy, keeping a solid routine and schedule seems to be beneficial for people. As my friends, family, and clients can attest, I am a huge fan of mindfulness and the power it has to change and reinvigorate someone. There is not one way to be mindful either. Try to incorporate different mindfulness or meditation activities throughout your day. Wake up with a gratitude meditation, in the afternoon utilize a grounding activity, and in the evening wind down with a loving kindness mindfulness exercise. No matter what the activity is, the goal of mindfulness is to bring you to the present moment and out of the chaos that you may be experiencing inside your head. With the nights getting longer and our ability to interact with people in person decreasing daily, it may be easy for you to start catastrophizing and get caught up in your thoughts. Allow mindfulness to be a defense and ally against SAD.
When it comes to intimacy, I think a great place to start would be reminding yourself to connect with friends and family. Whether it is a phone date, a group text, or a virtual hang out, our phones and computers are good for more than just browsing the internet. Phones were created so that we could connect with one another easier, so let’s start doing it! In the beginning of COVID-19, I remember having several virtual meetups with friends and family and feeling the connection. We went through the chunkiness of it in March, so now that it is out of the way, we can focus on enjoying each other’s company. Researchers point to how shared experiences between people or groups can strengthen bonds between them. If navigating a pandemic is not a shared experience, then I do not know what is! So talk about it, connect, and try to enjoy it.
Typically, Seasonal Affective Disorder can wreak havoc on a person’s libido. Being that the pandemic has already done that, it will be interesting to see what research finds this winter in terms of new impacts. My guess is that we will again see a decrease in sex drive as we are coming off of the summer which provided somewhat of a reprieve for some people. Whether or not you are still experiencing a dip in sex drive, or it starts to happen this winter, just note that this is completely, one hundred percent, normal. Our libido is not linear. It is dynamic, and impacted by biological, psychological, and social factors. With so many factors being involved and influencing it, no wonder it can go off the rails every once in awhile. What is important to note is that when it happens, we don’t have to let it control us. We can do something about it and change it.
Communication is key, here. Talking to your partner(s) or having a sit down with yourself, address the fact that things have changed and that you are aware of it. Do not shy away from having a conversation about sex just because it may be uncomfortable. This is how conflict starts. One person can build a case against the other, or others, and resentment may form. By talking, we create an open and authentic dialogue that can lead to everyone being on the same page. Remember, there is no “normal” amount of sex that a person, or couple, or triad should be having. This is something that you and your partner(s) discuss and determine together.
Don’t be afraid to explore areas of your sexuality that you may have been neglecting this winter as well. Whether it is engaging in light (or rough) BDSM play, or introducing sex toys into the relationship, this is a great time to explore these endeavors. Do you trust your partner? If so, communicate your desire to open up and explore a side of your sexuality that you want them to be a part of at this time. It can be hair-pulling, blindfolding, pegging, nipple clamps, water sports, or recording a video, nothing is off limits when we feel comfortable with the people we trust.
Remember, it is okay to say “no.” Mental health is one of the most important pieces that make up us as individuals. Prioritize yourself and make sure your self-care routine is unwavering. There is only one you on this planet and taking care of yourself is seminal. Do not feel the need to “push through” just because it is expected. The mind/body connection is strong, and when we are feeling mentally exhausted, we tend to feel it on a physical level as well. Seasonal Affective Disorder is upon us. No matter what routine you have in place, make sure that you have patience with yourself, loved ones, and friends, and do not forget that you are not alone in this world. There are people in it who are here to support you. Winter is coming, but we will be ready for it!