Skiing the stress away: How embracing the winter helped my seasonal depression


Vassili Prokopenko

As the seasonal depression sinks in and intrusive thoughts flood my mind, my love for skiing is my lantern in the dark.

By Maddie Kaltman

My toes are numb, my legs bruised and sore and my eyes are burning in the bright yellow sun. But here — flying downhill against the blustery wind — is where I’m at my happiest. Waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to drive to the mountains may not be everyone’s ideal winter day, but I relish the early mornings and harsh weather.

I learned to ski before I learned to read. My mom held my hands as we took on the expansive terrain of the bunny slope, my small skis gliding over the neatly groomed snow. Soon enough, I was flying down green trails and braving blue runs. By the time I graduated from “ski school” at the age of eight, my mountain conquests had expanded to black diamonds and the icy rails of terrain parks.

However, each year, as December approaches, the short, gray days bleed into inky-black nights. I’ve struggled with anxiety for my entire life, but the uptick of school work and the gloomy weather that accompanies the winter months began to take a toll on my mental health during middle school. 

During an especially rough patch during seventh grade, finding an activity to look forward to — something that allowed me to tune out the chaotic world around me for a few hours — was what kept me going. That something ended up being a day trip to the mountains. Since then, as the seasonal depression sinks in and intrusive thoughts flood my mind, my love for skiing is my lantern in the dark.

On the slopes I feel free, in control and at home. Each turn I carve is a harmony of muscle memory built over years of practice. Each time I strap on my boots and click into my skis, the outside world fades around me. I leave behind my worries on the chairlift and let my mind focus on the soft scraping of the blades as they slice through powdery snow. For a few hours, I have no work or stress, just the biting cold air sneaking between the gaps in my jacket.

Like many other Whitman students, I tend to over-work myself. I spend my chilly winter days sitting in AP classes and participating in sports and clubs after school. I devote my winter nights to staring at my computer screen or rubbing my eyes as I scan the dull pages of my textbooks. After a while, my weeks turn into a numbing cycle that seems to repeat for all of eternity. At times like these, I opt to hit the slopes.

As I forge my path down the mountain, I gain a sense of clarity that is lacking when I’m at lower altitudes. Studies have shown that engaging in vigorous exercise is one of the most proven and effective methods for reducing anxiety because physical activity causes the body to release endorphins — chemicals in the brain that function as natural painkillers. Endorphins allow the body and mind to relax, relieving physiological and mental stress. 

When it’s finally time to hang up my skis and poles, my aching muscles and cold fingers are rewards for the day’s accomplishments. Taking off my rigid boots allows me to relax my bruised shins as well as my mind. After a long shower and some hot chocolate, I sink beneath a pile of blankets and allow myself to succumb to dreamless, rejuvenating sleep — without the typical, lingering nerves.

As we trek through the blustery months of winter, it’s important to find that light in the dark. For me, allowing myself to decompress and accept the changing of the seasons has been vital in combating seasonal depression. No matter how much work and stress weighs on my shoulders, seeking out the positives makes my cold, long winters seem a little bit warmer.