dealing with cold weather blues {seasonal affective disorder}

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I know I have some southern hemisphere readers -- so to those of you down under (if you even clicked on this post!), just bookmark this for later, and feel free to share any pearls of advice that worked well for you this past winter. Also, believe it or not, some people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) symptoms in warmer, sunny months. (They're definitely in the minority, though!) 

Last Friday night, I went to bed at 9:15 pm. ON FRIDAY NIGHT. (Yeah, I'm not very cool.) It was a busy work week, with an emotionally draining ending (a special trauma experiential we do with the women every few months.) But more than that, it had been dark since 5 o clock, so my body was saying "I'm done, it's bedtime." When scrolling through my Facebook feed the next morning, I saw a post from comedian Patton Oswalt that was so good I had to share it on my personal page, and it inspired this blog post. Here's an excerpt:

To all my fellow depressives, getting hit hard by the suddenly shorter, colder days? I'm with you. I'm on an unshakeable schedule when it comes to Seasonal Activated Depression (SAD -- aww. Nice acronym. But wouldn't Feeling Under-Cheerful, Killing The Happy Inside Syndrome be more accurate?)

Leading up to Halloween? Couldn't be happier. The second after midnight on the 31st? The gloom & grey come down like a mildewy theatre curtain.

Please don't forget, these next few months, until the spring kicks in and we can all start skateboarding on the serotonin rainbow of summer -- you CAN get through this. One way is to go regularly help someone else. In a big or small way. Talk to someone regularly, or bring someone food or just your company. One selfish benefit of charity is it gives you a free vacation from inside your own head. Don't worry -- all that gorgeous nonsense & noise you've got rattling around inside your skull will politely wait until you come back.

He then goes on to offer the strange but hilarious advice to read Russian literature, essentially as a way of reminding yourself, "Hey, things could be worse! Look at Dostoyevsky!" Patton's quick (and dark) wit is why he's one of my favorite comedians. I love his message, because we all need reminders from time to time that the present moment won't last forever, and that we will get through it. I also love his encouragement to give back as a way of getting out of your own head. (If only he knew that in one Facebook post he encompassed about 4 DBT skills!) So, inspired by comedic mastermind Patton Oswalt, I wanted to offer some info about SAD, and more ideas for how to up the ante on self-care during the gloomy months. By the way, as I'm writing this Monday morning, I'm looking out the French doors in our kitchen, and it has started snowing. (Sure it's pretty and all, but that means it's SO. COLD.)

According to Mayo Clinic, the symptoms for fall/winter onset SAD include: -Irritability -Tiredness or low energy -Problems getting along with other people -Hypersensitivity to rejection -Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs -Oversleeping -Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates -Weight gain

<<looks around to see if Mayo Clinic has cameras in my house>>

Really though, if you're like me and you fall into this category, we need to be extra mindful of mood and self-care over the next few months. In the past, I've often brushed it off as just "I hate the cold so it makes me pissy" without doing much to actually support myself. So, here are a few ways I plan to bring a little cheer to these dark days:

Have more frequent phone and Skype chats with far-away family and friends. Especially when it feels too icky to go out, this is the best time of year to spend more time with the people you love who are far away. This is something I'd like to do more of anyway, and I know that feeling connected will improve my overall mood. I'm making a commitment right here, right now to talk to long-distance friends/family at least 4 times a week during these months (and yes, that's way more than I currently do). Wanna get fancy? Plan to have the same drink while you're Skypeing (eggnog, coffee, red wine?) so you'll feel that much more connected.

Take advantage of the time indoors for some deeper introspection. For me, this means more regular journaling and reading spiritually-minded books (pretty much any Anne Lamott non-fiction is gold). When you look at this time of year as a natural annual cycle of turning inward, this perspective can uncover the beauty in the flow of seasons. Turning inward means exploring your shadow side, your aspirations, your deepest longings and desires. And remember that you have to intentionally frame it this way -- shifting your mindset makes a huge difference here.

Try some new cold-weather recipes. One of my favorites is this decadent Butternut Squash and Sausage Shepherd's Pie that came from one of my Mom's Better Homes & Gardens. I've also been on a big Minimalist Baker kick recently and really loved these Mediterranean Baked Sweet Potatoes.

Get moving.  That "leaden arms and legs" symptom? Sometimes all it takes to shift both energy and mindset is to move around. Yoga is a great choice, since you can choose a practice tailored to your needs in the moment -- whether you need to energize, unwind, stretch, rest, or flow. I am loving My Yoga Online (now part of Gaiam TV) streaming service because it's cheap (10 bucks a month) and they offer a wide array of styles, instructors, and length of practice. The video quality and instructors are top notch. And of course, I have to mention my absolute favorite, Suzanne Bowen Fitness (another inexpensive online streaming service) which offers barre and barre-inspired routines of all lengths. She even has great little 5-10 minute "resets" for when you may not be in the mood or have time for a full workout, but need to just move for a few minutes to reset your mood.

Trick your brain with light therapy. One of the most common recommended treatments for SAD is light therapy. This involves sitting with a special light box that mimics outdoor light for about 30 minutes every day, or whatever frequency and duration your physician/therapist recommends. Research has shown that this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that can improve mood and ease other SAD symptoms. It's recommended to report any mood changes to your physician, especially those with Bipolar Disorder, as light therapy has been show to help with Bipolar depressive cycles, but in some cases has reported to lead to manic symptoms.

Just remember that if you're feeling really low, you don't have to "just deal with it." Yes, it's completely normal to feel down now and then, but if you continually feel disconnected from yourself, your loved ones, and things you once found enjoyable -- this doesn't have to be your new "normal." Seeing a therapist (and sometimes psychiatrist, too) can give you a flashlight to shine on your path as you walk through the darkness until the sun rises again.

Alright -- time for me to practice what I preach and call a friend.

Do you struggle with cold-weather blues? How do you shift your mood when you're feeling low? 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.