Winter blues
December 25, 2012 7:20 PM   Subscribe

I get extremely depressed (sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation) on my month long winter break from college. Help me help myself prevent that from happening this year.

I live with my parents and I commute to a university that is only 20 minutes away. I'm in my fourth year of college (taking 5 years to graduate) and this has happened every year. I don't think it is seasonal affective disorder because I was doing very well the last few weeks during my last classes and finals. There seems to be a switch in my brain that turns from "stressed but productive and hopeful" during the semester to "extremely sad and apathetic" after I'm home for a few days.

I was previously diagnosed with major depressive disorder as a teenager, which dissipated into dysthymia until earlier this year. I changed my major and started eating correctly and losing weight. My mood has been so much better since then, but now I'm falling back into the annual winter break sadness.

When it's time to study for finals, I have all these big plans of how I'm going to learn a new programming language, finish a few books, practice my instrument, finish my crochet project etc. when I'm finally done with the semester. That steam runs out after I've been home for 2 days, after which I turn into a total zombie. When I have no set deadlines and no pressure, I just can't function for some reason. I've been home exactly a week now and all I've done is make Christmas cookies, watch trashy TLC reality shows and lurk on MeFi and reddit. There are a hundred better things I could be doing, but I choose to lay in bed, think about sad things and distract myself with meaningless crap instead.

How can I suck it up and start being productive? I have been doing extremely well and I didn't think I would ever feel this way again, so this is a huge, extremely disappointing setback. Does this happen to anyone else? Does anyone have any tips on how I can deal with this?
posted by Hey Judas! to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like your expectations of yourself are perhaps too high. You do need time off and time to recharge also. Is the problem really that you are consuming informational junk food or that you feel bad because you think you ought to be doing other things? In my experience, one doesn't get to devote as much time as it looks to projects over a winter break because there are many family and other obligations that silently eat up time.

Are you seeing a therapist? This would be a great thing to talk to a therapist about.

If you really want to try to work on a project, you need to get into a habit of working on it. Set an alarm for a certain time every morning, get up every day and work on it for 30 min, no excuses. Also promise yourself you won't beat yourself up if you don't get as much done as you meant to.
posted by grouse at 7:29 PM on December 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Dysthymia keeps people indoors, and out of the sun. And, correct me if I am wrong but your hobbies -- coding, reading, playing an instrument, crocheting -- are solitary, indoor activities more often not. Compound those factors with the seasonal lack of sunlight in the winter and it doesn't have to be straight-up SAD for a Vitamin D deficiency to wreak havoc on your mood. If it dependably happens during a winter month, try taking a Vitamin D supplement (assuming you have no conflicting medical issues.)
posted by griphus at 7:32 PM on December 25, 2012

I have two thoughts:

1. Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with baking Christmas cookies, watching trashy reality shows and playing on the internet. This is your break and you're allowed to enjoy it.

2. How about making your goals things that aren't solitary activities? It will be much easier to get yourself motivated to go out and do something if you're doing it with a family member or friend. Do you know someone who likes to crochet? Do you have other activities that will make you feel energized that you could do with someone else? Make plans with friends!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:33 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

First of all, if you are getting suicidal thoughts, please get in touch with your psychiatrist, go to an emergency room if you don't currently have a psychiatric care provider, or at least reach out to a resource like Hopeline.

Second, try not to be too hard on yourself about the productivity slump after finals are over. That always happened to me and most of my friends in college and grad school. One of my friends, a biologist, referred to it as the refractory period. It's really hard—harder than a lot of people realize—to be organized and productive in the absence of any externally-imposed obligations or structures on your time. It's doubly hard when you've just expended tons of mental energy finishing the semester and getting through finals.

Personally, I have come to believe that lying around wallowing in internet and TV mindlessness is a perfectly good way to spend the winter break.

However, if you want to do something different, set the bar low. Really low. Like "go for a fifteen-minute walk outside." Or "go see a movie this evening" (which is like watching TV but you get out of the house to do it). Or "spend 20 minutes volunteering on Zooniverse in between Metafilter and Reddit binges."
posted by Orinda at 7:39 PM on December 25, 2012

Sometimes you just need to unstring the bow, you know? A break should be that. A break!

As a former sufferer of depression, sometimes it is triggered by unmet expectations and negative thinking. If you are thinking poorly of yourself because you are not "performing up to expectation" that could be a trigger. Also, you really do need to get out and get some sunlight.

Finally, are there family patterns you are not allowing yourself to recognize that could be affecting your mood?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:42 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have a workaholic father? Because you are me! :D Or at least, you sound a lot like me.

One thing that has helped me is to read up a lot on the Protestant Work Ethic and realize how much it still influences our daily lives as a philosophy. Let me ask you this: do you believe that life is here for us to devote ourselves to fully experiencing and enjoying? I do, but it took me FOREVER to realize that my hours spent watching Bones and making cookies and painting my nails are part of that too, and just as valid as the time I spent studying or researching or learning new things. This is your break, this is your time for self-care. Your whole existence, your whole being, your accomplishments are not somehow negated if you spend a month doing mindless things and recharging. It sounds like you spend a lot of time and energy on school and other pursuits. That's great! But it's break-time now. That's not to say you shouldn't work on personal projects, but you should work on them only insofar as they revitalize you, not drain you completely. Things like keeping up good eating habits and exercising will help recharge you for sure (and like others are saying, doing them with a buddy can be really motivating). But also accept that maybe you need to spend some down time hanging out and just relaxing, and don't sweat the crochet and other stuff too much.

The self-care tag on Tumblr is full of great affirmations about how staying healthy, and taking care of yourself mentally and emotionally, are NOT wastes of time, even when they look like "wastes of time" because they take the form of fun movies and slow cups of tea. I find it really inspirational. Memail me anytime if you want to talk about how we can learn to slow down without spiraling into "my self-worth is related to my productivity!" depression.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:42 PM on December 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

I either become suicidal or come close to it every winter break, although I am diagnosed as bipolar I. Something about going from the intense stress of finals to nothing triggers it every year. In an attempt to head it off at the pass this year, I've been exercising for a couple hours a day along with my normal routine when I think I'm becoming depressed.

Ultimately, I am also at a loss at how to prevent this, but you are definitely not alone!
posted by likethenight at 7:44 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have the same exact problem. It's awful. Compounded by a break that doesn't match up with other schools', and not many friends around my home town, result: horrible depressing winters. I call it whiplash- spending term in an intense environment, socially and intellectually, and then... nothing. Nothing at all.

My solution this year was not to go home for most of winter (going to school out of state) and get a job on campus, living in a house with friends-of-friends. Sounds like it's a bit late for that, but if you can find a job, short-term volunteer work, something you can meet friends for outside of your house, or really anything like that, you'll feel better.

Maybe there's coding work you can do for a professor? People in data-heavy disciplines (econ, for example) have weird coding problems reasonably often ("My format is stored in an insane format, and I need it to be organized!", "I need all this data scraped from this website.") and they're challenging but not impossible. Well, it's the job I ended up getting. Even if it's not paid, you'd have A Job and A Reason To Get Up In The Morning. As long as I have a job, I can give myself permission to be really unproductive the rest of the time, and actually enjoy it.

Go for walks, go for bike rides. If a really cool project idea comes to you, and you can't not work on it, then spend time on it.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:44 PM on December 25, 2012

Force yourself to get up early and get direct morning sun in your eyes. If you can't get that (say, if it's just too cloudy) get a light box. Get up and go to bed at the same time each day. Also, as others have said, Vit D supplements are good.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 10:19 PM on December 25, 2012

Get your Vitamin D levels checked. You might be low, and need a supplement.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:56 PM on December 25, 2012

Go outside every day. I've had just a four day weekend at home alone and it's making me stir crazy. It's so easy and cozy just to stay on the couch or in bed but it's soo much nicer, and more refreshing, and more real-feeling, to get out and enjoy the light, or the way trees look, or the pretty decorative lights all over downtown. And deciding to go outside means you have to put on real clothes, maybe you have a chance to get kind of dressed up, you have an opportunity to interact with people... it's still relaxing and pleasant (which I think is way more important for a break than getting all your projects done) but it anchors your day and makes things way less depressing.

Plus, living with your parents... don't you *want* to get out of the house for a little while? Go shopping, or volunteer to pick up the groceries, or go out for coffee or lunch. Make plans to meet a friend every other day or even every day. You can even work on one of your projects out of the house - take your crochet project to the coffee shop, maybe. But if you don't want to work on it then just go out with your laptop and surf the web, that's OK too.
posted by Lady Li at 12:32 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me the solution is to get an easy part-part time job or do some kind of simple volunteer work. Something like five or ten hours a week of re-shelving books at the library is perfect.
  1. It involves an amount of human contact and out-of-the-house-ness.
  2. It structures your time, instead of one long stretch of vacation.
  3. You've done something productive every week, which can help you give your brain permission to relax the rest of the time.
  4. If it's a paid position, having even a small amount of fun money feels pretty nice. If it's not paid, then you have the warm fuzzies from doing a good deed.
  5. It really is a kind of vacation, since the hardest part is just "show up on time" and you don't have to think about it otherwise.

posted by anaelith at 2:55 AM on December 26, 2012

One thing to keep in mind, which may or may not be relevant to you. Once, in the midst of a horrible depression, I read that the average happy person has 22 human interactions a day. So I made a huge effort to hit that benchmark: the postman, the woman at the corner shop, a neighbour in a yard, people on the street, etc. I'll say hello to anybody these days.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:59 AM on December 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Do you have a public library near your house? That can act as a nice school-substitute. Pick just one thing you want to accomplish in these weeks, that can be done at the library, and keep your goals very simple. And the night before, choose a time when you will go to the library with your programming book or whatever, and choose how long you'll go there for (1 hour), and just go.

This is the difference between working with a blank canvas ("I should do all these things but I"m doing nothing") and filling in a paint-by-numbers design. All you have to do is fill in the lines.

And then come home and type something like, "yay me. I did something productive today." And then watch Honey Boo Boo and The Real Housewives of Atlanta with joy and impunity.

I am not your therapist.
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:27 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing vitamin d and light box.
I would also add that meditation has helped me with similar issues as well.
posted by brevator at 7:37 AM on December 26, 2012

Agree with griphus and professor plum with a rope, and other posters.

Try to get up bright and early. Get as much sunlight as you can.

As other posters have suggested, getting a part-time job is great, it makes you get out of bed and into the sun for at least one part of the day. YMMV but this is what helps me.
posted by rozaine at 10:40 AM on December 26, 2012

It sounds to me like you're scrambling pretty desperately to convince yourself of your own worth as a person.

And it's an awful feeling, to need all that convincing in the first place. It should be obvious to you that you've got worth. It sucks to be stuck in a place where it doesn't feel obvious.

I've been there, though. When you feel empty and depressed, it's really tempting to try to do what you're doing — to rack up a bunch of accomplishments and use those as evidence that you're doing okay after all. That approach works really well until it doesn't. At a certain point you end up stuck or frustrated or burnt out, and you can't motivate yourself to keep collecting accomplishments anymore — or you just try your hardest at something and honestly fail — and then the sense of worthlessness comes right back.

The real solution is to start believing that you're a worthwhile person no matter what you do or don't accomplish. But that can be a really tough thing to get yourself to believe. (Paradoxically, once you do start believing it, it sometimes gets easier to accomplish impressive things — because you're less scared of failure, you can take bigger risks, and sometimes those risks pay off. So I'm not asking you to give up on your dreams. I'm just saying, recognize that you deserve love and happiness whether or not you ever attain those dreams, and whether or not you've made any progress towards them in a given week of your life.)

It's a little like being Dorothy at the end of the movie. The wizard's all "Don't you see? You had everything you needed all along!" and you kind of want to be like "FUCK YOU, WIZARD, THAT'S RIDICULOUS." Like, "I busted my ass getting to where I am today, and I'm proud of everything that I did, and now you're gonna tell me it was all unnecessary? I don't have to listen to this shit," and then you storm out of the room. But ... well, seriously, I hate to break it to you, but you've been a good, worthwhile, lovable, valuable person all along. The impressive accomplishments are all well and good, and if you had fun working on them then that's awesome, but they really weren't actually necessary at all. You deserved to be loved and happy even when all you were doing was watching reality TV.

That might not sound like good news to you right now, but it really really is.
posted by and so but then, we at 12:57 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

You've gone from going to school to being in your house all day. Get out of the house for a few hours every day.
posted by yohko at 4:18 PM on December 26, 2012

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