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.

Life Must Be a Challenge

“Life must be a challenge.”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

“Have a Happy New Year, and whatever goals you set for yourself this year, I hope you achieve them.”

The sales clerk handed me my bags as she spoke these words with a broad smile. I wished her a new year’s greeting before heading out into the swarming mall milieu.  John, my husband, and I were in Cincinnati for a couple of days of relaxation between the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.  We debated the merits of traveling as the Omicron variant seemed to be spreading like athlete’s foot in a high school locker room.  In the end, we decided to take the proper precautions–as we have been doing these past couple of years–and head out for our planned excursion.

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Back home, I was later reminded of that brief encounter with a sales clerk. 

“Did you set any New Year’s resolutions for this year?” asked the young lady preparing to cut my hair on a recent January appointment .

This question led to an interesting discussion about whether or not to use the start of a new year as a reset button–a time to reflect and set new goals.  The stylist was all for it as she described the way in which her three boys, her partner, and she had shared and recorded their goals for 2022 in a journal.  She added that she wrote the goals down as points for review throughout the year, and they would serve the family as a final reflection on the eve of 2023. It seemed like such an intentional and thoughtful practice to have with her family.

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Pondering this practice, I reflected on my own goal-setting practices.  As I had explained to the stylist, my personality is such that I am constantly reviewing my own behaviors/habits.  Any perceived “mistake” I make–whether real or self-imposed–I dwell upon, running and rerunning the incidents on repeat like insurance commercials during televised football games.  I think about what I said/did wrong, or how I should have responded to a circumstance, in hopes of not repeating that behavior.  Sometimes it works, but more often than not, I fail, making the same or similar mistakes.  Ugh!  It is a broken record of imperfection.

Perhaps that is why I am drawn to setting small, achievable goals throughout the year, such as training for a half-marathon, teaching myself a new cooking technique, or even my pursuit of weekly writing deadlines.  These are typically structured goals, with steps from point A to point Z, and clearly delineated deadlines/outcomes.  Then, it’s simply a matter of following through with each step, adjusting when there is a set-back, and continuing on, one step at a time, until crossing the finish line.

In the bigger picture of life, however, things aren’t always so cut-and-dry with step-by-step progress and a clear finish line.  For example, when looking over these past two years of life with COVID, it seems one plan after another falls and one unattainable finish line falls to another.  Just as I struggle with my own fallacies, shortcomings, and humanity, science likewise seems to struggle with virus variants far more complicated than my own list of self-imposed list short-comings.  

All of these seemingly diverse thoughts came together when I reread the opening line of The Golden Present, a reference book to which I have repeatedly referred over a number of years.  The author begins with the following thesis,  “Life must be a challenge.”  In those five words, I was reminded of one simple truth.  If life is to be lived fully, then its challenges, from the personal to the global (and all levels in between), must be met, faced, and dealt with in some form.  

From surviving the ice storm in 2021, that wreaked havoc on local power grids, to navigating the following days of ice melt and rain that lead to devastating flooding; and from learning to adapt, adjust, and safely navigate the “new normal” of life with COVID, to getting up way to early each morning and trying to be a better version of myself than I was the previous day, life in 2021 was certainly full of challenges.  One look back at local, state, national, and global news headlines, and we see that every day, people around the world were faced with challenges far greater than any crisis I faced this year. 

As I write, I am reminded of the wildfires that ravaged the west in the summer, the Florida condo collapse, Hurricane Ida inflicting destruction on Louisiana, social media’s documented toxic influence on youth mental health, tornados that swept through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.  Even now, in the early days of 2022, headlines continue to demonstrate that life is indeed full of challenges, adversities, and difficulties. Even within my own work community, a beloved employee was recently severely injured when another vehicle ran a red-light–totaling this employee’s vehicle and putting this person in the hospital for months of recovery.  

I could go on, but the point is this.  I am alive and overall healthy.  If you are reading this, you are alive–and I pray–healthy.  Therefore, as 2023 progresses and the challenges start arriving–and you know they will persist–let us resolve to bravely face adversity while acknowledging that both the good and the bad are gifts of life.  After all, as light can only be known by the presence of darkness, the exuberance of joyful moments can only be known due to struggling through time periods of frustration, and sometimes even despair.  

We are on this earth for such a short time, let us be grateful for the moments–the good times, and the not-so-good times, when obstacles of all types get thrown our way. May we endeavor to fortify our faith in Divine Providence, believe in the power of hope, and may we cultivate love, or at the very least, patience and kindness for others–even those who see things differently from our own point of view.  As the name of my reference book indicates, the present moment is golden, and it is a gift to be unwrapped daily.  

Each day of life is waiting like a present under a tree to be unwrapped!

Besides, who wants a life that is easy?  If life were simple, there’d be no stories to tell around dinner tables, much less work cooler gossip; and, there certainly would not be any fodder for writers who need the challenge of discovering a new story to tell each week in order to meet a weekly deadline!

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Enjoy the Golden Present Moment, but Don’t Attach

“Life is short, and time is swift; Roses fade, and shadows shift.”–Ebenezer Elliott

It’s all just a carnival.”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

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I can remember as a preteen, our family made its first week-long vacation with all three of my siblings and me to Wrightsville Beach, NC.  We stayed in an old family-owned Inn just a short walk to the shoreline and pier as best I can recall.  The owner, it seemed to me at the time, was an older lady who enjoyed getting to know her guests and gathering them each afternoon/evening for some sort of simple family-centered event, such as sharing freshly cut watermelon or offering an ice cream social hour.

Honestly, I do not remember many details about this trip, but I do recall making friends with another family who stayed in the same inn.  With my parents permission, I accompanied this family to a local roller skating rink.  At the time, I loved to roller skate.  It was an older sibling in the family that drove all of us in a red-orange sports car, with the windows down, and with  rock music blaring–the likes of which I had never before heard.  Once at the roller rink, the same type of music continued, bright lights of colors were flashing, and a disco ball spun and sparkled in the center of the rink.  At the time, I felt so grown up.  I was certain that I was nearly touching adulthood as I skated around blissfully, ignorant of my very real youth.

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In a similar vein, I can remember on another family vacation a few years later.  This time we stayed on Outer Banks of NC, which was completely different from Wrightsville Beach because we were not near typical vacation attractions.  The beach, at the Outer Banks, was the center attraction, which was fine by my family and me. My family stayed in a house that was “fourth row” back from the beach.  While we could see a bit of the beach from the deck of the house, we still had about a 5-10 minute walk to the beach.

On this trip, my siblings and I made friends with another family. Their names were the Kirtleys, (I hope I am spelling their name correctly.) and they had three kids–two boys and one girl, if I am remembering correctly.  Their family had an ocean front vacation home with a line of glass windows that ran from bottom to top with a spiral staircase visible through the panes.  It seemed so spectacular in my teenage mind.

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Once, their family invited our family over for drinks and appetizers.  While my parents did not drink much in the way of alcohol, they still accepted their invitation.  I can recall walking the length of the spiral staircase with one of the Kirtley kids and looking out at the ocean from the top of the stairs that opened up into a large main floor with abundant and unspoiled views of the ocean.  I was certain that it was one of the finest things I had ever climbed and the ocean seemed so close and vivid–like I could hear the water breathing.

These trips were like visiting a carnival or amusement park, highly anticipated events that seemed the most important thing in the world, but like the numerous sand castles I have built over the years, the tide, like time, drew up, and washed the moment away.  How many moments of life are like that?  Graduating from high school, winning some sort of special event or game, attaining a job, planning and taking part in a special ceremony, and even the simple act of going to dinner with a loved one.  The people, the moment, the time, the event . . . so special, so sacred, so anticipated . . . Then, like the snap of your fingers, time’s tide rolls in, and it is over.  Just as the ocean shore in July is smooth and pristine in the dawn of the morning with no evidence of the previous day’s beach goers, so too is the present moment.

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The present moment is so golden, and yet it is so overlooked.  Magical memories are being made, and we don’t realize it.  People come and go in our lives.  Events occur and pass.  One moment, you’re on the Big Dipper roller coaster in Camden Park with a friend surrounded by strangers, and then you, your friend, the other riders, as well as the amusement park’s employees move on. 

For a time period, a child is small and dependent, but soon becomes an adolescent with thoughts of independence.  For a season, you encounter the same person at the grocery store, week in and week out, then that employee is seen no more.  You work with a person for years, but eventually, the workplace changes.  One day you’ve earned your way to the top of the work heap, the next you are no longer there.  Attaching to titles, money, things, and even moments are all temporary.  We leave this earth the way we entered it: naked and with no belongings.

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What remains in between is each present moment while it lasts. The kindnesses of gentle words, the acts of warmhearted acts of compassion, the peacefulness of the calm, the resonance of laughter and joy, and the humble tears streaming quietly down the cheek.  From the cantaloupe-colored sunrise, to the gleaming midday sun dancing through amber autumn leaves; from the purples and indigoes of sunset over the Ohio River to blinking of faraway stars and planets against an inky sky, and all other moments in between, the present moment is humbly, but fleetingly, waiting for us.  It is right there, in our sight, but cannot be grasped or attained–only lived in for that one moment–then, like the footprints in the shore line sand, it is washed away.

What also remains is the earth, the sea, and the heavens above. People come and go in our lives. Words and actions can build or destroy the present moment.  Let us all use our golden present moments to find the common ground, share kindnesses, so that one day we may walk the ultimate spiral staircase to a higher ground.

“Earth sky sea and rain  . . . 

Words that build or destroy . . .

I’d like to be around

In a spiral staircase

To the higher ground . . .” –excerpt from “Promenade” as performed by U2, written by Clayton, Evans, Mullen, & Hewson