Create a Personalized Mental Health Toolkit
We’re on the other side of Labor Day, and that means it is the unofficial beginning of Autumn. Even though Autumn is my absolute favorite season, I have mixed feelings (ok, read: actual dread) about the season that follows… Alright, I don’t hate Winter, but historically, it has been a struggle for me. I have chronic pain that is worsened by the cold, but it’s also the shortened daylight hours, feeling cooped up indoors, the poor driving conditions… you get the point. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, or seasonal depression, wintertime blues, etc.) is a real thing for me. I want to share one of my best tips for getting through the cold weather doldrums ahead: the personal mental health toolkit.
Those wintertime blues…
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that recurs around the same time every year, and lasts for a few months. Most people feel its effects beginning in late fall and lasting through the winter. A few people actually experience it the opposite way… starting in spring and lasting through the summer. Typical depression symptoms are common for both (hopelessness, low energy, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, sleep problems, change in appetite and/or weight, frequently thinking about death/ suicide, and problems with concentration). Read more about SAD symptoms here.
SAD seems to be connected to dropping levels of serotonin ( the “happy hormone”) and melatonin (the “sleep hormone”). The amount of natural light you are exposed to affects both of these hormones. So less daylight = less serotonin and melatonin = mood and sleep problems. To make matters worse, these effects are stronger the further away from the equator you live. This is because there are fewer hours of sunlight the closer to the poles you are (i.e. SAD is more prevalent in folks who live above the 35th parallel).
You’re not in this alone
I hope you’re still with me, because my point isn’t just to share statistics about seasonal depression. My point is that if you know that you are prone to seasonal mood changes -even if you don’t think you quite hit SAD levels of depression- you can make a plan right now to support your mental health. Let’s call it your mental health toolkit, for any time you feel yourself getting depressed, anxious, or just moody.
Now, here’s the part where I tell you that I’m not a doctor, and I can’t give you medical advice. So use your own best judgement. Personally, I have talked to my doctor about this. He is aware of my history, and every year in about November, he writes me a prescription for an antidepressant that I can keep in my purse and fill at any time if I feel like I should. It’s a good option for me, since I am fairly mindful about my mental state. I recommend good communication with your own doctor as part of your mental health toolkit.
Your mental health toolkit awaits
There are a ton of research- backed treatments and practices that you can do to minimize the wintertime blues. Proven, official treatments for SAD that might belong on your list include:
- Light Therapy (you can buy special LED lights for this exact purpose, google “light therapy for SAD”)
- CBT (counseling/ therapy),
- Stress- relief strategies (including yoga, meditation, music and art therapy),
- Time outdoors and exercise.
But these are just a starting place- there are a ton of other options. YOU know best what kinds of things help you to feel better when you’re experiencing a “low”.
Your mental health toolkit is basically a list of options for you to run through when you don’t have the energy or willpower to think of how to pull yourself away from your darkness.
When I start feeling depressed, it feels like I am approaching a huge, dark pit in the ground, and if I get too close, I will fall in. The closer I get to my “deep, dark hole”, the harder it is to pull myself away and turn my mood around. I don’t have the energy or motivation to research what to do to feel better. But I can open up my notebook to where I have written out my checklist of things to do to feel better, and I can start doing things on the list without expending a ton of energy.
I will share some of the things I have included on my list. My toolkit includes things like:
- Meditation routine (I shoot for a minimum of 10 minutes a day. If you don’t know where to start, may I recommend trying a progressive body scan, blog post with instructions linked.)
- Nutrition choices (This could be cutting something out, like sugar or dairy, or adding something in, like trying to get an extra serving of veggies or fruit. It could also be allowing yourself to mindfully enjoy a special treat.)
- Sleep choices (Either going to bed or getting up at specific times. Taking a nap, etc.)
- Hydration (A good rule of thumb is your weight in pounds divided by 2 = ounces of water you should drink every day.)
- Gratitude practice (I have a designated journal that I write a minimum of one sentence of gratitude in each day.)
- Continuing education (Find something you want to immerse yourself in, and learn more about it. Last winter I finished classes for a certification I was working on, and then I signed up for a labyrinth drawing class. Just find something that seems interesting, and maybe sign up for it ahead of time.)
- Music (I have a couple playlists of music that make me feel good- some are peppy and upbeat, and others are mellow, but feel- good songs. I also took up playing the ukulele a few years ago, and there are a ton of free tutorials, printable music, etc. out there. It’s a huge return on investment in terms of money and time invested to actual playing of songs and enjoyment in a relatively short period.)
- Exercise (This can be as simple as a daily walk. Ok, true story- last winter, I walked my son to school almost every morning, all winter long. Even when it was below freezing, we bundled up and walked, as long as it wasn’t icy or stormy. Interestingly, last winter was the first winter in almost 20 years where I felt like my mental health was reasonably good all winter long. That’s huge for me. :))
- Affirmations (Write out a list of a few positive affirmations, and for bonus points, pair them with tapping/ EFT to supercharge them. Here’s a classic: “I deeply and completely accept myself”.)
- Journaling (This can be anything that works for you, either bullet journaling, blogging, journaling prompts, a plain notebook where you record everything you did that day, write in letter format, or just do a brain dump, profanity and all. Whatever does it for you, seriously.)
- Nature therapy (Check out my social media posts on Shinrin Yoku, or Forest Bathing, to see all the amazing ways that nature boosts your physical and mental health. Consider investing in good quality clothing and gear that will keep you warm outdoors, and get outside.)
- Purposeful social connection (This could be forcing yourself to get out the door and go to that GNO, going out to lunch with a friend, or calling your sister/ friend/ mom/ SO on the phone for a few minutes.)
- Vitamins and Supplements (I may do a separate post about this, but I do take at minimum a women’s Multivitamin, Magnesium, Omega-3 Fish Oil, and some other herbal supplements shown to positively affect mood and energy. You’ll have to do your own research about what you feel is right for you.)
- Reading comics that make me laugh (My current favorite is Strange Planet by Nathan Pyle, but my son loves Calvin and Hobbes. Try creating a folder on your phone with your favorite comic strips, memes, or TikTok videos. Again, whatever works for you.)
Your personal resource
I don’t do everything on my list everyday. It is a kit filled with options that I turn to when I need it. Some of the options are intended as prevention, and others are meant to be utilized once I am already feeling down. My toolkit is geared around depression (and it’s written in my notebook under the heading “Anti- Depression Toolkit”). This is totally personal preference. Your toolkit might be geared around anxiety, or intrusive thoughts. Just try to notice now if there is anything that helps you feel better, even if it’s only a tiny bit, and put it on the list. Sometimes just knowing that you did something good for yourself, like drinking a glass of water instead of a soda, is enough to pull you out of a spiral.
Hot tip: Share your list with a trusted person who can remind you to use your toolkit when you’re struggling. Even if your mood is generally pretty stable throughout the year, consider taking 5 minutes to jot down a short list of mood-lifters or things that make you happy.
If it helps, you can download a free template for coming up with your own Mental Health Toolkit- link below. No strings attached. Just click and the download will start.
Personal Mental Health Toolkit Template
I wish you the best as we head toward Fall and Winter, and I hope you find creating your own Mental Health Toolkit helpful.