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A New Approach to SAD Season: Hygge

By Melanie Greenberg, LSW

Every year I tell my clients to prepare for the darker months at the end of August. Despite issuing this warning, I am still rocked by how suddenly I am personally hit with seasonal affective disorder every single year. I falsely believe it can’t be that much worse than the good old-fashioned clinical depression I struggle with year-round. Yet, as soon as school buses appear and leaves begin to crunch underfoot, the sense of dread in the pit of my stomach returns.

SAD can feel easy to delay at first with all of the distractions. First comes planning fall activities and participating in spooky season- pouring a glass of red wine and watching Halloween for the millionth time. Then come the holidays- decorations light up dark evenings, and Netflix releases an onslaught of corny movies with actors from our childhood falling in love. The promise of newness and a clean slate soon stares us down as we ring in the New Year (a holiday that warrants its own blog post to process).

But then… it’s just darkness. Cold and dreary days with dirty snow-lined streets, no longer filled with the magic of holiday spirit. It is only the first few weeks of fall, and I’m already dreading these long winter days.

I’ve tried almost every trick in the book to get through the season of SAD. As a night owl, getting up with the sun proves incredibly difficult, especially when it’s freezing and my pug is snuggled into my neck. So, that strategy barely takes root. I’ve used a light box, taken vitamin D, gone tanning (I know, I know), scheduled trips to warmer places, accidentally killed dozens of plants, and baked bread to go with the soups I wish were more comforting.

But this year, I want to try something different.

Due to the months of darkness in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, Scandinavians are experts at making winter less miserable. They’ve decided to lean into the darkness and cold and find comfort in the little things that bring joy. I’ve been reading more about this practice called hygge. The Danish concept, pronounced hoo-guh, has no direct translation to English, but its closest descriptor would be “cozy.” 

Imagine a cabin off the grid lit with fairy lights and candles, giving a soft, warm glow. In the corner is a mountain of blankets and pillows to snuggle up in and watch a movie with someone you love. There’s warm bread in the oven and a fire crackling while you’re wrapped in your favorite sweater and slippers. I’m often reminded of how Taylor Swift’s album Folklore made me feel when it first came out. During the dark days of winter 2020, I’d light candles and take steaming hot showers in the dark while listening to the soft, relatable music that warmed my heart.

As a therapist who works with people who have experienced trauma (pretty much all of us), a great deal of the work I do is helping people learn how to be in their bodies and experience the present moment. While staying present can be really scary and anxiety-inducing, it’s also where the magic happens. Being present is how we experience joy and pleasure. Pleasure in the food we are eating, the company we are keeping, the memories we are making, and yes, pleasure in the sex we are having! Hygge is more of a feeling than a word; it’s about the experience, getting lost in the moment, and being content by experiencing simplicity with intentional interaction and gratitude. Hygge is mindfulness in everyday actions.

So this year, along with continuing the usual recommendations and seeing my own therapist, I will lean into the comfy, cozy attitude of hygge instead of resisting the season. It will be all fuzzy socks and blankets, moisturizers, mugs of tea, warm lights, feel-good books and TV, and comfort food.

Just like the Earth, our bodies have seasons. This winter, if my body tells me it’s time to slow down or say no and stay inside, I will stop beating myself up for not being able to “beat” the darkness. I’m going to light a candle, listen to some TSwift, throw a flannel on, and re-watch GBBO for the hundredth time.

I hope you’ll join me!

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking

The Hygge Game – Cozy Conversation In Pleasant Company Multicolored

The Hygge Activity Book For All Seasons