Trying to fend off seasonal depression this fall

A few months back, when the office first re-opened, a friend predicted over lunch that fall was going to be difficult this year. “The days get dark so much faster, and by November, we’ll be even more depressed and miserable than usual.”

That’s when the light bulb went off for me: even though I was still in my expat honeymoon phase last fall, I was indeed depressed, even if I couldn’t quite recognize it at the time. Looking back at my writings, it’s so obvious. For instance, this post about navigating Swiss bureaucracy was full of trivial complaints that seem so petty in retrospect. And when I went to Brussels in late November, the grey, gloomy weather had me in an especially irritated mood, to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the trip and unfairly wrote the entire country of Belgium off.

I can already tell that this fall is going to be infinitely tougher on the psyche. The second wave is sweeping Europe. The list of quarantine countries and regions is steadily growing, both from the Swiss side and from other European governments. The UK, Spain, parts of France, Portugal, Vienna, Denmark and even Liguria in Italy are now on the Swiss high-risk list. Germany is requiring travelers from Geneva to quarantine. Nearby Canton Vaud is in a full-scale outbreak and reporting the highest infection numbers in the country.

And then there’s Christmas. That’s completely up in the air at the moment. I don’t know whether it will be safe or advisable to go visit my parents in the States over the break. I’m currently leaning more towards “no”, but have yet to make up my mind. I guess I’ll have a clearer sense by mid-November.

For now, though, I can still see the bright spots. This is going to make me sound like one of those eat-pray-love whackos, but I didn’t realize until I visited Italy a few weeks ago just how much I needed it. How much I missed Italy, craved its proximity, its sunny climate, its coffee, its friendly people. Not even the constant catcalling could spoil my mood. It created inside me a little balloon of joy, and it also helped me realize that I needed to actively go and create these moments of joy to keep myself afloat.

So what am I doing to counteract the effects of seasonal affective disorder?

1. I got a wake-up light

The NIH recommends exposure to a bright artificial light source for 20-60 minutes a day during the months where daylight is limited. I actually had one of these wake-up lights when I lived in DC. You set an alarm on the lamp, and the next morning, it gradually glows brighter and brighter in an imitation of sunrise, until finally the alarm goes off and you awaken to a golden light-filled room.

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My bedroom in DC was cozy as hell.

This gradual wake-up method is quite helpful in the winter months, when the sun doesn’t rise until much later and it’s a struggle to get up and get dressed in a cold and dark room. It’s also going to come in handy because now that I work from home 2-3 days a week, I’ll need that warm, artificial light on my kitchen table to keep my energy up. I’ve just bought a similar secondhand model from the online shop Galaxus and should be getting it next week.

2. Food and nutrition

It’s weird: I’ve been cooking for 13 years, but it wasn’t until I moved to Switzerland last year that I actually managed to become decent at cooking. I’m definitely cooking a lot more, given how mediocre and expensive the restaurant scene is. I’ve also noticed that the produce at supermarkets here seems to be more fresh and local. I’ve bought eggs that still have hen feathers stuck to them. This morning, when I was picking through scallions at the shop, I noticed that some of the scallions were caked with fresh mud at the ends.

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During the lockdown from March to May, I ate really crappily because I was so alone and depressed. I got a ton of frozen food and vegetables and either plopped them in my toaster oven or thawed them in boiling water. I also developed a really unhealthy addiction to soda, going through about three cans of Coke per week. And back then, the supermarket felt like the Twilight Zone because we had to queue outside, often for the length of an entire block, and then once we were inside everyone was visibly stressed and just anxious to wrap up their shopping and GTFO. My mind was too foggy to think about recipes; I just grabbed whatever was most convenient.

If this happens again this fall, I plan to fight back with conviction. I know from experience that my mind is not the most reliable narrator of what I am capable of and what’s good for me, and I’m not going back to frozen fries and sugar-fueled insomnia. I’m studying my cookbooks, visualizing recipes that I can make and writing lists before I go to the store. I’m also going to pick up a bottle of Vitamin D the next time I go to the pharmacy. The jury’s still out on whether this is an effective treatment, but I guess it can’t hurt.

3. (Limited!) travel

Given all the shifting quarantine requirements, I think I’d be wise to stay in Switzerland for the time being. I have yet to explore the vast majority of this country, and there’s so much to see and do. Here’s what I have on my bucket list for Switzerland this fall and winter:

  • Visit Basel, the Swiss cultural capital, and explore Europe’s biggest toy museum
  • Take a vineyard tour and finally visit Chillon Castle
  • Stay in that iconic hotel that is only reachable by train and gets a magnificent view of the Matterhorn (I tried to do this last year but they canceled the train due to bad weather)
  • Take the world-famous Bernina Express, which offers panoramic views of the Swiss Alps
  • Visit Fribourg/Freiburg to observe how an officially bilingual town operates in practice
  • Visit Gruyères and learn about how they make that world-famous cheese
  • Return to Ticino and explore a different Italian-speaking town, like Locarno

If it’s safe, I would love to go back to Italy again and take a cooking class. Maybe a coffee-making class too.

4. What else?

Exercise is a big one. Often, I roll out of bed just minutes before 9am and don’t even bother to brush my hair. But lately, I’ve started taking walks, sometimes early in the morning before work and sometimes during a lull in the middle of the day. Early morning feels like a better fit. There’s not much traffic yet, and the day seems full of possibilities.

Learning languages. I decided not to go back to in-person French school this semester because it didn’t feel safe. I’m still chatting once a week with my French teacher via Skype. Every night, I spend 20 minutes watching 19h30, a Swiss public news programme in French. As we get closer to the election, though, I might take a break from the news and switch to watching French-language TV shows and standup comedy instead. I’m also supposed to start online Indonesian classes soon, but no word yet on when that will happen.

Reading. I used to be such a voracious reader when I lived in DC because the public library system was excellent; it was so easy to check out books both in person and online. I think I haven’t gotten back into reading here because the libraries in Geneva do not cater to English speakers at all, and I’ve been too lazy to get a library card. I’m putting that on my list for October: I need to get a library card, and I will try to get back into reading.

Skin care. Having an established skin care routine feels super comforting and is helping me get through the changing of seasons, which usually leaves my face red and flaky. I get most of my products from the Japanese brand MUJI. They’re highly affordable and fragrance-free. Every night before bed, I apply toning water, moisturizer, a mineral face lotion, and eye cream. SO GOOD!

One comment

  1. I wish I was in Switzerland with you so that together we could go on morning walks/runs, cook mediocre meals, and study languages!! 😛 These are all great ideas, I’m going to borrow the one about the lamp. And if you read a book you really enjoy, shoot me a WhatsApp about it, I love talking about books!

    Liked by 1 person

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