Combating SAD and those winter blues

Dawn is one of my favorite times of the day.  All is quiet and peaceful.  The colors of indigo, purple, and blue gently fade into shades of boldness– cantaloupe and blood orange. Ultimately, such an audacious start cannot last, and those bold colors melt into a subtle blush.  It is as if all of nature is holding its breath.  There is a hush that can be felt, rather than heard. This quiet sweetness is often intercepted by the temerity of a bird singing, “Chip-a-we, chip-a-we.”  Soon other birds echo their harmonies–little melodies of hope.

As the sun rise wipes away the darkness from the skies, yesterday is officially rinsed away.  Lifelong teacher that she is, Mother Nature, hands each of us a new canvas.  We can begin again.  

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But what about those days, when skies are blanketed with the clouds of fall and winter?  When the morning doesn’t possess the grandeur of the symbolic gesture of a slate cleaned.  When, instead, all those burgeoning clouds seem overflowing with all of the errors and mishaps of the previous day, and the sorrows and pains of the future appear to hang low on the horizon of inky darkness.  When the mind, like a glass bottle tossed into the sea, drifts from one fret to another.

Another winter looms larger than ever.  The past feels forever chained to the soul, and the future, oh-the-future, what more frets could it hold?  Our thoughts begin to plague us. We are held in bondage to our thoughts.  Bondaged to the what-ifs, the how will I be able to, and the weight of the unseen dangers lurking within every charcoal layer of gloominess.

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It is not uncommon for many of us to fight this sort of mental tug-of-war as cozy, amber autumnal hues dissipate under winter’s drab, gray overcoat.  An affable cook with whom I worked during my long-passed college days, named Shirley, would say, “Ah, honey, that ain’t nothin’ but them winter blues.”  She’d tell me to be grateful for my life, praise God more, and, “Bundle up, git outside, girl! Go for a walk, and git ya sum fresh a’r. A little cold won’t harm ya, and it’ll chase them ol’ blues away!”   Turns out, Ms. Shirley was on to something.

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According to the Cleveland Clinic, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression, triggered by the change in seasons, typically beginning in fall, and worsening throughout the winter months until the days begin to lengthen at some point in spring.  It more commonly occurs in young people and women, but men are by no means immune to it.  The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 15 million adults, or 7.1%, of the US population experience SAD, with another 10% – 20% of the population experiencing some form of the winter blues.  

With so much of the population already experiencing depression, anxiety, and/or phobias, it felt important to share a few established practices, according to several leading medical institutions, for coping with SAD and the winter blues.  

Go outside. One of the most common techniques is getting outside for a walk, even for a few minutes, like Ms. Shirley suggested all those years ago.  Even on cold and cloudy days, getting outside provides multiple benefits.  It exposes you to light, and the movement increases blood flow and oxygenation, all of which are good for producing those feel good hormones.  

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Regular exercise.  Along those same lines, according to Helpguide.org International, regular exercise–whether you are doing it inside or outside–can be as effective as medication, without the worrisome side effects. Choose a form that is rhythmic and continuous and also incorporates both arms and legs, such as weightlifting, walking, swimming, tai chi, dancing, and so forth, as this provides the most benefit to mental wellbeing.  Regular exercise and/or continuous movement boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other mood enhancing brain chemicals.  Furthermore, exercise and/or movement improves sleep and boosts self esteem. 

Light exposure. Expose yourself to as much light as possible. Open up drapes and blinds during the day.  Sit and work, if possible, near sources of natural light.  Walk outside, and if you can tolerate the temperature, sit outside, even for a few moments.  Natural light is another way to boost serotonin.  Additionally, consider bright light therapy–special lamps or daylight simulation light bulbs–to use while reading, eating, working, and so forth. 

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Be social.  Reach out to family and friends.  Volunteer your time.  Meet friends for lunch, dinner, or coffee.  Join a support group.  It doesn’t matter so much what you choose to do, rather it’s about making social connections.  Even if you don’t feel like it, being social is a mood elevator.

Eat right.  Depression causes sufferers to crave starchy carbs, which leads to lethargy, lack of motivation, and even greater mood swings.  However, choosing fresh fruits and vegetables, along with complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and even bananas, can boost that ever desired serotonin, without the sugar crash. Additionally, omega rich foods, such as oily fish, soybeans, walnuts, and flaxseeds, are known mood boosters, and, if taking antidepressants, may increase their effectiveness.

Keep a regular sleep schedule and engage in stress reduction practices.  Both are beneficial to ameliorating SAD symptoms.   Avoiding naps, or limiting their length, prevents the sluggishness that can often accompany them. Managing or reducing stress through various techniques, such as yoga, prayer, meditation, gratitude journals, and other mindfulness activities may be beneficial.  Other related tips include, completing one activity/thing you love to do daily, and even watching videos, shows, and/or movies that make you laugh are beneficial to reducing symptoms associated with SAD or those winter blues.

Wint-o-green mints.  Ok, so this isn’t an established practice.  However, it is my technique for using mints to remind me that if I “wint” int-o the present mo-mint, I can stop borrowing tomorrow’s troubles.  While I can’t say it’s great practice for my teeth, those round orbs of refresh-mint offer a sweet signal for my brain to slow down my monkey mind, breathe slower, and focus on one moment/thing at time.  Mint = Mind In Now-Time.

Acknowledging that winter can make many of us feel a little sadder is important.  Not only does it allow us to feel more compassion and empathy for those experiencing SAD, but it also gives us permission to recognize those feelings within ourselves, should we begin to experience them.  I can’t say I am a fan of colder temperatures, but I still get outside most days of the week, like it or not.  In the meantime, I can’t help but think Ms. Shirley would be pleased to know science now proves her sage advice to be true.