DEPRESSION PART III
It may be the dog days of August, but some people are already worrying about winter. Later sunrises and earlier sunsets are already upon us, and once late Fall kicks in, reduced sunlight becomes very noticeable. Some people develop SAD, an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Seasonal Adjustment Disorder. This depression hits them in the winter when there is reduced sunlight. In fact, some professionals say SAD results from reduced sunlight, which causes biochemical imbalances in the brain.
A few victims treat SAD by sitting in front of a special lamp for an hour or so each day before sunrise and again after sunset. The idea is to extend the amount of time your brain is bathed in light each day, and thus maintain an appropriate biochemical balance to be blessed with a good mood. Others prefer to take anti-depressant medication to correct the presumed imbalance. Still another approach to SAD is in line with themes we try to develop in this blog. This approach focuses on personal empowerment, autonomous action, and taking control of your behavior during the winter months
There’s no doubt winter brings a special set of depression-inducing stressors. You’re cooped up in the house (quite a bit if you live in the North) and it’s tough to take those enjoyable strolls around the neighborhood after dinner. You exercise less and gain weight, which further depresses you. You’re more likely to get sick during the winter. You worry about road conditions when there’s ice and snow, and what to do with the kids if there are school delays and cancelations. And in the middle of it all are the dreaded holidays.
But, hey, maybe SAD need not be such a big deal, at least if you approach winter the right way. Why not use some coping techniques to reduce some of that down-in-the-dumps feeling? As always, you need to assess what you can and can’t control.
One thing you can’t control is winter weather. How do you deal with that? The answer is, stay active. Is it possible that you might develop mood swings in the winter months because you change your routine and give in to the darkness and cold? All those worries about the dangers of bad-weather driving, flying home for the holidays, becoming snowbound in an airport, getting the flu, or a host of other self-imposed concerns just tie you up in knots, so you curl up on the couch and become more likely to avoid life.
Here’s our non-pharmaceutical take on SAD: the key to 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.
Perhaps the fundamental idea behind SAD is flawed. As winter approaches and the days get shorter, if you believe you are doomed to get depressed because of reduced sunlight, that’s your choice. But remember: darkness is not necessarily going to make you depressed; it’s what you do during the darkness that makes the difference. The winter months can 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! We believe 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!
If you tend to get down in the dumps during those long winter months and want to purchase an expensive lamp to bathe your brain in artificial sunlight, fine; that’s up to you. If you want to take anti-depressant medication, well, that’s your choice, too. But you can also be open to that third alternative, and not be afraid to find new strategies to maintain your warm-weather activity routine. Plus, you can take on new things in spite of winter. 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. In general, 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!