How to Beat the Winter Blues of Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD)
'Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year.' ~ Hippocrates, the father of medicine (circa 400 B.C.)
Seasonal depression is a reality for some of us as autumn turns to winter. Slowly and insidiously, a little lethargy here and a little more sadness there, creeps into our lives with little notice. Seasonal changes that bring about seasonal depression is an issue that in our world of artificial light we often forget about.
For others the shorter days and longer nights bring about real symptoms of depression, known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. These symptoms may be very noticeable or even unavoidable.
The symptoms of seasonal depression are the obvious feelings involved with depression, like sleep disturbances and cravings for starchy, sugary food.
In more severe forms of seasonal affective disorder, one may experience problems in other areas of their lives like poor work performance, difficulty in relationships, and withdrawal from others. Wanting to just be alone is often a symptom of the winter blues.
Awareness of the effect of darkness on your body is the first step in overcoming any symptoms that may come with seasonal depression.
The moment that I realized that I was affected by the change in seasons, was the day that I began my journey towards discovering ways to stay positive and have positive energy flowing outward, even in the darkest, coldest days of winter.
The metaphors of autumn and winter predominate literature and our oral traditions, so I am not sure why we don’t acknowledge this phenomenon in our own individual lives as we go through seasonal cycles.
We all know about the ‘autumn years,’ a metaphor for aging. God forbid we get to winter, because metaphors of winter mean death! Winter metaphors also denote depression, darkness and coldness. Think: “The Winter of our Discontent” and “Long Day's Journey into Night.” Makes me want to shutter just by writing it out.
I admit that it is hard for me to turn my energy toward indoor activities instead of the outdoor activities that I love as winter approaches.
We all love Light and Warmth and the metaphors that they represent ~ Hope and Love! However, when I acknowledge that I have seasonal depression, then I can make the mental switch. When I find my personal ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ I easily fill my life with the activities that bring comfort and raise my endorphins to improve my mood.
We all get some form of the winter blues. The pineal gland in our brains is what is responsible for our perceptions of light and darkness. As less light enters the brain, it triggers the pineal gland to secrete more serotonin. Serotonin is the hormone that puts us to sleep. So the brain is telling the body to slow down and sleep more!
Maybe we shouldn’t be fighting our winter blues at all. Seasonal cycles may be nature’s way of giving us a break, giving a time for more hibernation and less activity.
Slowing down in winter is part of our natural, cyclical processes. Our brains, at a cellular intelligence level are telling us that insufficient sunlight is available for alert activity, therefore we should sleep!
The pressures of modern day life, when we need to keep our energy levels high, despite the time of year, causes our body-mind connection to trigger a craving for sweets and starches to keep up with the mind's demands.
The mind that pushes the body to continue, alerts the body's mechanisms to want more energy from sugar and starch to raise its level of endorphins required to perform.
An amazing body-mind phenomenon, don't you think? In fact, think about whether or not you really wish to keep pushing your body hard in the winter months OR use the winter months as a time to slow down, reflect and give yourself a break from all the demands!
Maybe we should all go back to some form of hibernation from all the demands of others or from ourselves!
I understand that we are not cavemen, with the ability to sleep off the winter months. So, the antidote to seasonal depression is about doing activities that bring Light and Warmth! Here are some of my suggestions, what works for me.
Light a fire: There is absolutely nothing full of more light and warmth in the dark winter months than a crackling fire. Only a few short centuries ago, fire was necessary for survival. Its presence and its effect on us is coded in our genes. So light a fire, get warm and cozy.
Light a candle: Since not all of us have the luxury of a fireplace whether indoors or out, candles are an excellent substitute. Put them in places in the house where you can see them regularly. Light them regularly so that every time you look at the flame you will say a quick affirmation that reminds you of the symbols that it represents: Light. Hope. Love.
Make rituals out of candles. I light a candle(s) almost daily as part of my meditation practice. I place my hands over the small flame and feel its warmth. It is amazing how so little a flame can give off so much warmth! Light a candle in the morning with your loved one, hold hands as you gaze into the flame and send silent messages of Love to one another. Or send messages of Love and Hope to others as you feel the need. Rekindle the ancient flame in all of your souls as you connect with Universal Light and Love.
Sunlight: Spend at least 10 minutes in the sun every day if you can, even in the coldest climates. Sunlight is proven to be what we need to elevate our mood through endorphins. If you need to sit outside for a few minutes over your lunch break, just do it. Roll up your sleeves a bit and turn your face to the sun. Even in the winter, the sun is warm on your face. An added benefit of the sun exposure is a boost to your body's vitamin D needs. WebMD says to get at least 10-15 minutes on your face and arms several times a week to get sufficient Vitamin D from the sun.
Drink warm beverages: A soothing cup of green or black tea, when you curl up with a good book will warm your heart. Wrap yourself in a blanket, afghan or warm fuzzy clothes. Wrap your fingers around a large mug, and feel the warmth that it provides. Feel the warmth of the liquid as it travels down your throat. I feel love and warmth just thinking about it.
Read a great book: Nothing beats the winter blues better than reading a good book. In the winter depression months, choose books with positive messages full of hope and love. It will make you feel better. The same is true for movies. Find the ones to make you laugh or open your heart to raise those needed endorphins.
Journal, Write and Plan: Clear the mental cobwebs and express yourself in some form. You just might be the next Earnest Hemingway! Write down all your hopes and dreams. Write out ideas that you have for the next spring or summer. Daydream about your ideas, and then write your ideas down. Strategize how you might make an actuality out of something you always wished you had the time to do. Plan it out and make it happen!
Make warm soups: Turn your food choices to warm ones, especially soups. Nothing beats the winter depression like a good, homemade bowl of soup. Makes one think of Mom, Home and Love. No escaping it.
Try a new indoor activity: Take up ballroom dancing, Tae Kwon Do, Qi Gong, bowling or other indoor activities. Movement creates positive energy in the outer world and will make your inner world much better. Seasonal depression is hard to hold onto when you are dancing the Samba!
Take a 30-minute walk out of doors: If you ‘take in the fresh air’ you will feel better, even if it is only for a short walk. This activity will do much more for your mood than most other activities.
Try new winter sports: Nothing cures my seasonal depression more than a nice day of skiing or snowshoeing. Sometimes I have to drag myself out of doors, when I just don’t feel like it, but I never regret it when I do! If it is a sunny day, I will sit outside for lunch, during the ski day, whether it’s on the ski hill, or in the backcountry. Even if all you can do is throw snowballs with the kids or build a snowman, you will find that behaving like a child is very effective to cure the winter blues.
Meditate more: Less outdoor running around will free up some time in your day for silence, stillness and reverence. Instead of turning on the TV, meditate for 15 minutes. It may change your perspective and your life. The benefits of meditation are well documented and even seasonal affective disorder can be managed with meditation.
Bodywork: My absolute personal favorite is meditative movement through bodywork practices like Yoga, foam rolling, body rolling, Qi Gong, hula hooping, jumping on a mini-trampoline and just any movement that is intuitive. In the dead of winter when the seasonal depression hits the hardest, I get up early, in the dark and light candles. I meditate for a time, and then go into my meditative movements, however my heart leads that day. I do bodywork on those areas that are calling for my attention.
Say Positive Affirmations: Your glass is always half-full if you perceive it as such. Winter depression is a reality that can be overcome through creating positive affirmations.
Increase you social connectedness: Invite your friends over for an evening of entertainment of your choice. Gather at Church, book clubs, a restaurant or whatever organization pleases you. Organize a trip to a museum or the ski hill with your friends. Expressing yourself with others is a bona fide way to manage seasonal depression.
Travel to the Beach! If you can’t have light and warmth, travel somewhere where you can! This may not be an affordable option for most, but it does help. I would suffer much more if my husband and I didn’t take our winter trips to the warm and sunny areas. Take the time for this option if you suffer from winter depression and if you can afford it.
Volunteer your time for a great cause: Mother Teresa says that the single most important way to forget about your own issues is to see the plight of others and help them. Dedicate your life to helping others.
Take St. John's Wort: You can try natural herbal remedies like St John's Wort. For some people, this is just the ticket, and is a good alternative to synthetic antidepressant drugs. Just remember that if you are already on antidepressants, birth control or have bipolar disease do not take this too. Always let your doctor know if you take natural supplements.
Give what you want to receive: With every act of kindness comes great personal reward. Look for opportunities to spread loving kindness! Give the Hope, Light and Love that you wish to receive. Do it in every small way that you can, with all those that you meet and in every step of your journey! Your seasonal depression will soon seem small in comparison to where you could be!
During the transition of the season and the approach of shorter days, stay aware of your emotions. Be present to the possibility of seasonal depression that is so common and treat yourself to the strategies that I have offered you.
May you have total healing of your body-mind-soul as you look for Light and Love!