Winter is Coming: Seattle Therapists Share 4 Tips for Surviving (and thriving!) During the Darkness

Seattle logged 44.67 inches of rain last year between October and April, making it the wettest winter on record since 1895. In March 2017, KOMO News reported that there had been only three sunny, mild days since October. Ask anyone in town, and whether they have been here only one year or twenty plus, they will undoubtedly lament about just how bad last winter was in terms of the relentless rain and heavy cloud cover. The Seattle Darkness is known far and wide, and can be hard enough for locals let alone newcomers.

Winter 2018 is coming, and Emerald City Sanctuary wants to help you be prepared so that you can thrive during the gloom, especially if you have recently moved to the city. We teamed up with local therapists to compile a list of their best tips for maintaining your mental health when you haven’t seen the sun for weeks.

1. Be Proactive About Seasonal Affective Disorder

You are probably already familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder (and it’s highly appropriate acronym SAD), which disproportionately affects people living closer to Earth’s poles (raise your hand Seattle!). Now whether or not you meet all of the criteria for SAD, some changes in mood and behavior during less sunny times of the year is common for many folks. Carly Haeck, LMFTA provides some ideas for getting your mind and body in shape to weather the Seattle Darkness:

“A common symptom of seasonal depression is a lack of motivation, which can be frustrating because often, motivation is needed to help combat the depression. Therefore, if the winter weather has consistently affected your mood in the past, don’t wait until it takes hold of you this season – act preventatively and get your coping systems in place now! Having a support system of people whom you can go to when you’re feeling depressed is essential. Talk to some trusted friends and loved ones ahead of time and let them know this is something you may struggle with in the winter, and discuss helpful ways in which they can respond when you’re feeling depressed. That way, you won’t be discouraged from reaching out to them in the moment because it feels too exhausting to explain what you’re going through.

There are also some lifestyle changes that have been found to help with depression, such as exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It takes time for these things to become a habit, so start implementing them now while you are feeling more energized and there are more hours of sunlight. One form of exercise that can be particularly enjoyable in the winter is heated yoga. This includes Bikrim yoga, which is practiced at 95-108 degrees, but many yoga studios offer other types of classes in the 85-95 degree range, as well. It will warm your bones while also providing you with the soothing benefits of meditation, strength building and balance.”

Carly Haeck, LMFTA practices at Emerald City Sanctuary in South Lake Union and Pacific Northwest Family Therapy in Laurelhurst.

2. Build Community to Boost Your Mood

If you’ve even so much as thought about living in Seattle, surely you have heard of the Seattle Freeze, that stereotype of flakiness that can make transplants feel alienated. Emily Wood, LMHC discusses some practical tips for creating habits and routines that get you connected to your community as a PNW newbie, which she says can be essential for maintaining good mental health during these gloomy weeks and months:

“Newcomers to Seattle may not initially notice a huge shift in their mood because of the weather – especially since they have so many other adjustments (new home, career, etc.). However, seasonal changes can contribute to a subtle shift in your motivation and mood. I recommend building community to cope with a grey Seattle winter.

What does building community look like? First off, don’t avoid activity or neglect your hobbies because of rain and daylight savings. This is the time to develop strong mental and physical habits by sticking to a routine. I know, it is difficult. And yet, research shows that being active in community releases the same hormone, oxytocin, that we get from holding a baby or hugging a friend. This makes community important for regulating emotions. If you work from home, try answering email at a coffee shop instead. Or replace your solo workout with a group class. Sometimes changing our mood comes down to changing our environment. Creating new habits is difficult, but once they’re established it will feel natural and you’ll have a sense of accomplishment in setting yourself up with community as the winter weather sets in.”

Emily Wood Counseling is located in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle.

3. Ask Yourself: Is it Just About the Rain?

If you’ve recently gone through a major life transition like moving or starting a new job, chances are the relentless rain is also exacerbating underlying tension in your life. This is especially true during the holidays and the gloomy months that follow here in the Emerald City.  Nicole Brown, LMFT discusses why it’s important to examine what’s going on in your emotional life when it’s tempting to just blame the weather:

“Many Seattle transplants are far away from family, and are working in high stress jobs without a physically present support system. This can leave many newcomers particularly vulnerable to anxiety and depression, especially once sunny days are few and far between and it becomes even easier to isolate. The challenging thoughts and feelings that rise to the surface during a major life transition are important to unpack and seek support around. It’s natural to point to the lack of sunlight as the cause of our bad mood, but often that’s just part of the story. Ask yourself: is it just about the rain, or is something else feeling hard in my life right now? It could be helpful to have a long phone call with a friend or family member “back home,” and to share about your challenges with Seattle friends and coworkers who can relate. Tending to these underlying emotions around transition, work stress, and social isolation can be an important step in finding some light during these dark months.”

Nicole Brown, LMFT practices at Emerald City Sanctuary in South Lake Union.

4. Embrace the Culture and Get Cozy

Newcomers can rest assured that since this isn’t Seattle’s first (or last) rodeo with the gloom, there is no shortage of indoor refuges to stay dry and warm when heavy cloud cover is relentless and the rain just won’t quit. Liz Hunter, LMFTA shares about her first winter in Seattle, and how the cozy coffee culture of this city provided a refuge from the chilly wetness outside:

“Facing your first Seattle winter? You know what they say… you’ll never see the sun, it’s dark and rainy all the time, you’ll get Seasonal Affective Disorder, you’ll become dysthymic. All true (although you will see the sun a handful of times), but here are a few more things that will happen if you follow the trajectory I did my first winter here almost 30 years ago: You’ll gain 10 pounds from bathing (the most apt word I can think of) in twice daily grande mochas, and you will get sick a lot.

How does one sink gracefully and gratefully into this new climate, into this cold wetness, into this darkness, into these pesky new viruses? It’s not too hard; just don’t overthink it. Start wearing a down jacket now, along with a hat. Make sure you take your Vitamin D. And, as you enter the coffee shop for your twice daily mocha, relax into the unique atmosphere that only Seattle can offer – an atmosphere of damp clothes, of skilled baristas who will get to know both you and your drink, of that most enticing aroma of beans being ground and espressos brewed, of that jolt of endorphins being placed into your outstretched beloved hand. Outside is the pattering rain and a dark sky, but strangely enough you aren’t even aware of those Seattle winter companions anymore as you take the first sip of your hot drink. You feel warm and held, almost as if you were in a womb. Suddenly fingers point wordlessly outside. What’s going on? You squint your eyes and point wordlessly yourself at a mysterious orb that has just appeared, at a fabulous mountain peak that has been hidden until now. Yes! You have finally been initiated into what keeps Seattleites going all winter.”

Liz Hunter Counseling has offices in Downtown Seattle and Bothell.

Building strong habits and community connections is a big part of making peace with the Seattle Darkness, and so is tending to our overall mental health.

When we feel grounded in our coping skills and relationships we can also be open to falling in love with the Emerald City in all of its seasons. The poetry of the Seattle landscape and climate is what draws us in and also challenges us, and for newcomers it can be a fantastic opportunity to get to know yourself as you adapt to your new surroundings. Don’t be a stranger, there are coffee cups, cozy couches, yoga studios and therapists all across this fabulous city who are ready to hold and support you along the way – and together, we can learn to dance in the rain until we are greeted by the most beautiful summer that America has to offer.

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