Many of us know the feeling of sadness that can descend when it is dark and grey outside. I grew up in a very sunny place and first experienced this feeling during my second winter in Portland. It was definitely a challenge at first to figure out the best way to deal with the lack of sunlight for so long, but I was told it was possible. I also fully understood what people meant when they talked about Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. It certainly makes one sad, or worse.
If you are like me, you might find yourself wanting to stay home in the evenings, or even on weekends, out of the wind and rain. This is not an unreasonable thing to want to do. Not many of us really enjoy being cold and damp! However, it can serve to isolate during a time when one might already feel sad or isolated.
The fact that there is less sunlight is also a challenge. Our bodies thrive on sunlight. In the PNW, it isn’t just the lack of sunlight that can cause problems, but the angle of the sunlight. The angle is simply not allowing us to get the same benefit from what little sun we do get to see as we would in the summer.
Why does the lack of sunlight affect many of us this way?
Our biological clock and brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, are very sensitive to sunlight, or the lack thereof. When there is less light, our circadian rhythms can shift causing our internal clock to get out of balance. This can lead to feelings of depression. Also melatonin production is thrown off due to the decrease in light. Our daily schedules have us getting up in the dark and going to bed in the dark. When our melatonin is not being produced properly, it can disrupt our sleeping patterns, making us sleepy or awake at inappropriate times. Additionally, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that lifts our mood, can drop during the winter due to a lack of sunlight.
As you can see, the sun is central to how we feel psychologically. It also can affect how we feel physically, which affects our moods, creating quite a circle of events.
Fear not, however
There are things that you can do during the winter to help reduce the symptoms of SAD. Future articles will spend more time on nutritional, naturopathic, physical, and chinese medicine solutions to the complex of disorders that can emerge during this time of year. I would like to focus on ways that you can support your mood mentally, spiritually, and socially.
One, very simple, option to support your health during this time is to invest in a light box. A light box simulates sunlight and can go a long way toward maintaining all of the brain functions that are affected by sunlight. It is easy to use and makes a big difference in the depression many of us feel during this time.
Another way for many of us to improve our moods is to be around other people. For extroverts, this will feel pretty obvious, but even introverts can benefit from social interaction with one or two close friends. Many of us prefer to stay home out of the cold and wet. If you have a strong support system of people who are going to stay home with you, this is a perfect time to consider doing fun indoor activities together.
Putting together a puzzle, playing games, cooking healthy and warming meals, or even talking to one another can be very supportive. These things will keep your mind engaged. The connections with others doing things you enjoy boosts your neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, and improves your mood. If you live alone, or with people you don’t do fun things with, consider setting up meetings between friends to do fun things together. Again, this can be a big group or a small one, depending on your preferences.
Meditation is also a great way to support our brains during the dark time of the year.
Even if you do not have a formal meditation style, simply sitting quietly and taking deep breaths in the morning and evening can help to center your body and mind. Praying or using gratitude lists can also help us focus on positive things and let our brains take a break from feeling icky.
If you already see a counselor or therapist, this time of year is the perfect time to be proactive and make sure you are going regularly to talk. Adding an additional appointment or two to your normal schedule might be helpful. If you do not have someone professional to talk to, it is worth considering.
Talking to a therapist does not mean you are “crazy.” In fact, talking to a professional who can listen and offer helpful suggestions is a great way to handle the challenges we all face in life. When it comes to SAD, a counselor can help you come up with strategies to work through or cope healthily with depressive feelings.
If this is your first experience dealing with SAD, it might be scary and feel beyond your control. Making small changes and being kind to yourself will help you through this first winter. If you have dealt with SAD for years, remember that putting support into place in the summer and early fall is incredibly helpful. It might not in the forefront of your mind when you are floating on the river in the sunlight, but it can make a huge difference when the darkness comes.
Always remember that it is important to reach out to professionals for help when things seem overwhelming. The sunlight will return. I promise.
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