THE WINTER BLUES…HOW “SAD”
Every September Lynn gives her psychiatrist’s office a call and asks for a renewal of her anti-depressant medication. She tells them she’s feeling fine and hasn’t taken any of the meds since last April. But winter is coming and she knows that come late October she will start to feel down as those winter blues set in. She wants to get a running start and start the meds so they will have already “kicked in” by November and she will cut off the depression. Her strategy is kind of like getting a flu shot before the flu season sets in.
Lynn suffers from SAD, an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Seasonal Adjustment Disorder. This depression hits people in the winter when there is reduced sunlight. To combat her depression, Lynn has chosen psychiatric medication. If the plan works for Lynn, so be it. It’s hard to argue with success. For those who would like to forgo medication, however, there are alternatives to dealing with SAD.
Some professionals say SAD results from reduced sunlight, which causes biochemical imbalances in the brain. Thus, you can treat SAD with exposure to artificial light during the winter by sitting in front of a special lamp for an hour or so each day before sunrise. The idea is to keep your brain bathed in light, maintain an appropriate biochemical balance, and consequently be blessed with a good mood. These special lamps, by the way, can be purchased for several hundred dollars. Obtaining a good “brain tan” is not cheap!
Still another approach to SAD is in line with themes we try to develop in this blog. This approach emphasizes autonomous action and taking control of your behavior during the winter months. If such a treatment brings relief, some may feel that it is preferable to depending on a drug.
Before considering this non-drug option, however, let’s note some of the stressors that the winter months bring. SAD comes along when the weather is reminding you of the long winter months ahead (at least for many parts of the country). These months can be a tough time because you’re cooped up in the house (quite a bit if you live in the North). It gets dark earlier and it’s tough to take those enjoyable strolls around the neighborhood after dinner; might as well stay in the house and gain weight (which further depresses you when you look at the scale in January).
You’re more likely to get sick during the winter. The flu season kicks in around November, just when daylight savings time ends. Now darkness comes earlier each evening. When winter comes you also worry about road conditions. And how about all those school delays and cancellations that lead to angst about what to do with the kids? More winter joy!
Some researchers say increased darkness may have an adverse effect on the immune system. A weakened immune system during the winter, of course, could explain why you seem to get sick more often, and why flu season corresponds with the cold, dark winter months. So on top of all those other winter stressors, you worry about getting sick. And then you do get sick, and now you’re more likely to feel depressed. Talk about “the perfect storm”!
But, hey, maybe SAD need not be such a big deal, at least if you approach winter the right way. First of all it would help if you used some coping techniques to reduce some of the anxiety you’re feeling. Here’s a Christmas example offered by Host Carlea: “A couple of weeks after Halloween I noticed my neighbor’s house was already fully decked out for Christmas. I almost let myself suffer some anxiety about being decoratively-challenged and embarrassingly late for Christmas, but I caught myself. ‘Wait a minute. Just because neighbor is 6 weeks ahead of the curve, I don’t have to be; my house can wait a few weeks for the decorations.’
“But I couldn’t stop my brain from kicking into overdrive trying to determine how many days before the holiday invitations come in and the holiday cards go out; how many gifts do I need to pick out, wrap, and deliver; how many cookies do I have to bake (and refrain from eating); how many surprise guests will appear with tidings of good cheer; how many deadlines do I have to meet during this most wonderful time of the year; how many bills will I be able to pay; how many times will I have to clean the house … Well, you get the idea. I was suddenly flooded with stress.
“Then I allowed myself the opportunity to stop, breathe, and refocus. I could try to positively reframe those palpitation-inducing thoughts (e.g., “How lucky I am to have such good relationships in my life that hordes of people will come visit!”). But I, like you, can also remember the power of the word “no.” Just because an invitation to an event is received doesn’t mean you have to attend; just because you’ve always given presents to the child-age cousins in the family doesn’t mean you have to this year. Saying “no” frees you up to be the better version of you during the occasions when you say yes. You won’t be as tired, cranky, or Scrooge-like. Instead, you will be able to fully focus on the things that matter – special time with those you hold dear.”
Great advice! Take control. Of course, one thing we can’t control is winter weather. How do we deal with that? First of all let’s ask if there is even a relationship between our moods and the weather. We’ll give that question a definite “yes” answer. Researchers at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics found that mood and thinking ability both increased with warmer, pleasant temperatures and higher air pressure (high air pressure is generally associated with sunny, pleasant weather.)
But it’s not that simple. The researchers also found that when assigned to work on tasks outside on warm, sunny days, the mood of the research participants definitely increased; for those assigned to complete the tasks inside, however, even when pleasant weather conditions prevailed outside, mood was lower. So the positive effect of weather depended on where the person was working during those nice weather conditions. Working outside was definitely better than working inside. Isn’t this exactly what happens every Spring? Warm April days come after weeks of cold weather that has driven us inside. And now, almost overnight, there is opportunity for outdoor activities. So we get outside and do more and we feel great!
There’s a key word here: ACTIVITY. Is it possible that you might develop mood swings in the winter months because you change your routine and give in to the darkness? All those worries about the dangers imposed by night driving, bad-weather driving, flying home for the holidays, becoming snowbound in an airport, getting the flu, or a host of other self-imposed concerns resulting from a negative psychological response to the winter season just tie you up in knots. So you curl up on the couch and give up. You’re less likely to go out to dinner and parties, host social events at home, or engage in outdoor hobbies and recreation.
So here’s our non-pharmaceutical take on SAD (and we said the same thing in Brooks & Church, The Psychology of Everyday Life, published in 2009): The key to maintaining a good mood during the dark months is to maintain a steady “diet” of activity, just like during the summer months. You should schedule special events and activities that you’ll look forward to. Sure, you have to bundle up in January to take that walk, but doing so is better than sitting on your butt.
We know a serious outside walker who is also a serious winter hater! Still, she never lets the winter weather defeat her when it comes to walking outside. During the winter she bundles up in layers of sweat clothes, scarves, and windbreakers. Then, armed with her music device and earphones, out she goes. Her only concession to winter weather is the route she takes. If there is snow on the ground, many of her summer walking paths are just not accessible, so she changes the route accordingly. She always returns home about an hour later moaning and groaning about the evils of winter. But she is invigorated and feels good physically and mentally after these winter walks.
We think the fundamental idea behind SAD is flawed. As winter approaches and the days get shorter, if you want to believe that you are doomed to get depressed because of reduced sunlight, that’s your choice. But remember: Darkness is not going to make you depressed; it’s what you do during the darkness that makes the difference. The winter months should be viewed as a challenging time to continue with those activities that give you pleasure and a sense of control in your life, not as a time to hibernate! What you do is under your control; the weather is not!
One of our former students says: “I have a tendency to get depressed during the winter months, so I force myself onto the treadmill, or even into doing outdoor exercise. And when I go outside, I find myself invigorated. It really is invigorating to take a walk in the dark, when it’s cold, and the snow crunches. It also makes me feel like a warrior woman when I do something like that. Frostbite warnings are no match for me!”
We couldn’t say it better. If you have a tendency to get down in the dumps during those long winter months and want to purchase one of the expensive lamps to bathe your brain in artificial sunlight, fine; that’s up to you. And, if you want to start taking anti-depressant medication in September………..well, that’s your choice, too. We believe, however, you will be much better “inoculated” against winter psychological dangers if you continue your regular exercise and other activity routines during the winter. Spit in winter’s face!
Also, it helps to take on new things. Remember, the winter months bring special challenges to many people. Do things for others. Get involved in charity projects during the holiday season. Volunteer at a homeless shelter during the coldest time of the year. Do things; hit the road; get out there and be with people. And before you know it, you’ll be venturing outside to be bathed in that warm April sunshine!