Spiritual Practice of You: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Spiritual Practice of You: Seasonal Affective Disorder December 27, 2023

Many biblical scholars like to speculate on the themes of depression in the bible. When I was in seminary, we would often point to David, who if you read the Psalms which are attributed to him and some of the other accounts seems clinically depressed. Context matters though and we must consider the geopolitical and sociocultural events happening at the time of David to really appreciate his position. I could spend the rest of this discussion exegeting all the instances of “depression” in the bible, but what is important is that it more than likely existed and for many today, it is a real problem.  

I am back at work today; it is the Tuesday after Christmas and much of our conversations today are about the holidays and how perhaps they were not as happy as some would have liked. If you are reading this from somewhere other than the Northeast of America, you may or may not be aware of the impact the long dark winters and limited sunlight have on folks up here. Diagnostically, we call this Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD which can affect up to 5 percent of the population in North America. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

According to the National Institute of Mental Health:  

Symptoms of depression can include: 

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood most of the day, nearly every day, for at least 2 weeks 
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism 
  • Feelings of irritability, frustration, or restlessness 
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness 
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities 
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling slowed down 
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions 
  • Changes in sleep or appetite or unplanned weight changes 
  • Physical aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not have a clear physical cause and do not go away with treatment 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts 

For winter-pattern SAD, additional symptoms can include: 

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia) 
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates, leading to weight gain 
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”) 

For summer-pattern SAD, additional symptoms can include: 

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia) 
  • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss 
  • Restlessness and agitation 
  • Anxiety 
  • Violent or aggressive behavior 

Winter-pattern SAD should not be confused with “holiday blues”—feelings of sadness or anxiety brought on by stresses at certain times of the year. The depression associated with SAD is related to changes in daylight hours, not the calendar, so stresses associated with the holidays or predictable seasonal changes in work or school schedules, family visits, and so forth are not the same as SAD. 

The standard protocol for treating SAD or any type of depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and, in some cases, medications. As an integrative health practitioner, I also promote improvements in diet, exercise, and sleep.  

Finding Relief

In the next few paragraphs, I would like to break down several of these elements of self-care that you can take if you are experiencing SAD symptoms or even depression symptomatology. Each of us is a work in progress. We have not arrived; we are in the process of becoming. Just because you may be feeling blue or sad today or even if you have been feeling this way for a while, there is HOPE, there is HELP. The spiritual practice of YOU challenges you to see yourself as a son or daughter of God, or the divine reality. With God, we are co-creators of God’s greatest work, humans.  

Diet– I find that the research is very robust when it comes to diet and mental health. From eating foods high in Vitamin B and during the winter season, talking to your doctor about your vitamin D levels are two well-known examples of how your diet can play a role in your mental health. Lesser supported claims can be found around wheat/ gluten sensitivities.  https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

Sleep – lack of sleep makes it hard to cope or deal with difficult emotions. One of my most frequent lines to clients when working with children is asking if the child or the client is tired as this can make an enormous difference in how one deals with an obstacle or stressor in life.  https://www.columbiapsychiatry.org/news/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-mental-health

Exercise – Movement is perhaps the healthiest tool one has in their wellness toolbelt. From regulating blood sugars, to improving mobility, increasing blood flow and many others, exercise is a lifestyle decision all must engage in at all ages to improve health. Exercise can improve overall mood, lower anxiety symptoms, and improve overall confidence.  https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/more-evidence-that-exercise-can-boost-mood

Therapy – the kind of therapy I practice is known as dynamic psychotherapy. Here, I engage sometimes as a surrogate for the client, often playing the role of a parent or an elder, often mimicking the attachment that the client did not receive in an earlier part of life. In the pandemic of mental health concerns, a lot of people have a lot going on. It is okay to talk to someone. It is not a sign of weakness. At one point in our history, we had elders, teachers and parents who were engaged in the wholistic, meaningful growth of our children. Many of these institutions have either gone away or have become so polarized that people have turned away from them. The therapy office can become that safe space to ask dangerous questions and explore one’s self.  

Final Thoughts

“A thoroughly good relationship with ourselves results in being still, which doesn’t mean we don’t run, jump, and dance about. It means there’s no compulsiveness. We don’t overwork, overeat, over smoke, over seduce. In short, we begin to stop causing harm”. – Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart 

I am often teaching Loving Kindness or meta mediation/awarenesses to my clients during times when they are crushing their sense of self through self-sabotaging behaviors, self-deprecating statements or being plain hard on themselves. In this space of meditations, I ask my client to consider holding themselves and consider these words, “may I be safe, may I be happy, may I be free from harm”. 

Consider this and see yourself as the gift from God that you are, the potential seat of Christ.  




National Institute of Mental Health (n.d.). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Mental Health Information. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder 

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