Winter in Michigan: What Seasonal Depression taught me about the Arts
I love Michigan. I really do. I love our seasons, I love our beaches and lakes and rivers and cities.
The one thing I don't love? Winter. Apparently, a lot of other people don't either, as Thrillist ranked Michigan in 49th place in terms of most enjoyable winters (based on factors like weather patterns, average temperatures, how quickly and effectively snow is cleared off the roads... you get the idea).
I was a freshman in high school when my mom first explained to me what seasonal depression was, and that she thought I might have it. When she explained it, my life started to make a lot more sense--Why I'd try to go to bed at 7:00pm in the winter. Why the usual self-motivated, go-getter version of myself disappeared for a few months, turning into a version of myself that could barely seem to make it through the week, and spent the whole weekend just trying to recover. I had doctor's appointments, therapy sessions, and even an EKG at one point--all to find out that I was suffering from seasonal depression.
So, what is seasonal depression? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a subtype of depression or bipolar disorder that occurs and ends around the same time every year. Seasonal depression typically occurs when the seasons change and most symptoms begin in the fall and continue into the winter months. However, seasonal depression can occur in the summer or spring, although this is less common.
Toward the end of 2020, I once again found myself in this seasonal rut. What I noticed this year that I hadn't before was that in the moments of exhaustion and inner turmoil, I found myself leaning on art like a crutch. Journaling, reading books, finding new songs, or even just watching our favorite shows can feel like a deep breath of fresh air. In fact, during the COVID pandemic, some doctors started to prescribe museum visits rather than medication to those struggling with their mental health (however, it's worth noting that a trip to the museum can not replace medication or other treatment in severe instances of depression).
Consuming art that is created by others is helpful, but in these lows of life I know it's also vital to create. Whether it's songwriting, journaling, knitting, pottery, a coloring book, baking... the list goes on. I knew the arts helped me, but I've learned that I'm not alone. A fascinating and rapidly evolving field of research called Neuroesthetics--the scientific study of the neurobiological basis of the arts--utilizes brain imaging, brain wave technology and biofeedback to gather actual scientific evidence about how our brains respond to the arts.
The findings? We now have actual evidence for what we've always known is true. The arts engage the mind and have a positive effect on the neural circuits of our minds to promote health, wellness, and to foster adaptive responses to stress.
(Side note: Are you as intrigued by Neuroesthetics as I am? Here are some more sources for you: Artistic Creativity and the Brain, Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses following Art Making.)
Through my podcast, Amplify the Arts, I've been able to hear first hand about how the arts help us heal from my friends who've worked in the fields of art and music therapy. For instance, my friend Sabrina utilized art therapy in her volunteer experience at Mary Free Bed Hospitals, and another friend, Amanda, is a music therapist through Franciscan Life Process Center (You can listen to Sabrina's podcast episode here and Amanda's here!). I believe we can utilize these techniques in our daily lives in ways that are simple, effective, and affordable. Here's a few suggestions from yours truly...
Take up knitting.
First off, your grandma would be so proud of your cool new hobby. Second, don't be overwhelmed: They make these looms that are super simple to learn and are so satisfying. And guess what? We've got research to back up the therapeutic benefits of knitting--from the calming effects of simple, repetitive movements, to the social circle that can form from a shared hobby (Knitting circle? Yes PLEASE).
Novellinks Round Knitting Looms Set (Perfect for making winter hats!)
Wayion Knitting Loom Set (Perfect for scarves, shawls, etc)
Head to a paint, wine or pottery class.
If you happen to live in the Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan area like I do, there are so many great options nearby: Like Wine & Canvas, The Mud Room, Brush Studio and more! If you don't, do a quick Google search for 'painting classes or pottery classes near me'--you might be surprised how many there are.
I know it sounds childish and simplistic, but there are plenty of benefits to picking up a coloring book too--like improving your sleep quality, your ability to focus, your fine motor skills, reducing stress and anxiety and more. Here are some of my favorite coloring books:
Things I Want To Say At Work But Cant: An Adult Coloring Book
Color me Mindful: Mindfulness coloring book for teens and adults
Try a new recipe.
I truly believe that food is an under-appreciated art form, AND a way to feed our bodies and souls. Nourish your body and give yourself the space to create something beautiful in the kitchen. Oh, and by the way, I have a podcast episode about the beauty of food with my friend Madison Sharpe! Anyway, here's some of my favorite recipes with healthy nutrients to make you feel good:
Sweet Chili Salmon Broccoli Quinoa Bowls - because I'm a BIG salmon fan, and our bodies love a balanced meal.
Green Salad with Oranges, Beets and Avocado - because the more colors, the BETTER.
Slow Cooker Stuffed Peppers - Slow Cookers? Cute little stuffed peppers? Say less.
Shock the system. I know the last thing you want to do is move. I swear, my bed calls to me in a way that i've never experienced each winter. But move. You'll be so glad you did. My personal favorites include: Zumba, these fun broadway workouts people make on YouTube, or just put on my favorite songs and dance around like I did in fifth grade (apologies to my roommates and neighbors who have to listen to a lot of Taylor Swift when I do this).
First off, here's my personal Bedroom Dance Party playlist. You're free to borrow as you see fit. *wink*
Second, here's some of my favorite free feel-good workouts that don't really FEEL like workouts, available on YouTube!
Hairspray-Dance HIIT Workout (or really just any of emkfit's workouts.)a
Kyra Proo has some fun ones too--like this Camp Rock Dance Workout.
We all move way too fast. Take a moment to actually look around and soak in your life, and then, write it down. One of my 2022 resolutions was to start feeling my emotions again. I used to feel all my emotions so deeply, and since I've graduated college (whether it be a protection mechanism or trying to get through life quicker), I've stopped myself from feeling. While this isn't directly related to seasonal depression, I do think that it makes my seasonal depression worse. There's one book in particular that I was lucky enough to stumble across-- Little Stories of Your Life, by Laura Pashby. Each page has challenged me to pay attention to the things that I so often overlook, appreciating my life so much more in the process--especially on the grayest, coldest, most depressing days.
The bottom line? Winter in a snowy, cloudy state is much more challenging than we give it credit for. Whatever you feel in the winter months, you're not alone, and the arts provide the perfect ways for us to soothe our anxious minds, pass the time, and process whatever emotions we might be experiencing.
Important note: Mild seasonal depression is vastly different from more serious disorders, and the things mentioned in this post are in no way intended to treat severe depression or anxiety. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741.