Do you dread the leaves turning color?
Or when you hear that the temperature is going to be below 50 degrees, do you wince and yearn for warmer weather?
Does your energy get zapped in January and February, and you have to make yourself get out of bed? And then it “magically” seems as if March brings a lilt to your step?
If you do, you may experience what some people term SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. The research on SAD concludes different outcomes. Several studies show that women may experience down times during winter months more than men, that people who are living somewhere where they didn’t grow up have more trouble. Maybe it’s due to living farther away from the equator, which affects sunlight.
Yet another more recent study debunks the whole idea. The idea was been that the lower the light, the more likely you’ll experience depression. The researchers involved believed SAD existed, they simply wanted to find out how having more or less light affected its presence.
“Megan Traffanstedt and Dr. LoBello, in collaboration with Dr. Sheila Mehta, searched the CDC’s survey results for links between high scores on the depression screen and particular seasons or latitudes. The researchers also looked to see if high latitudes combined with the winter season to raise the frequency of depressed answers more than high latitude or winter alone. Hours of sunlight at a given location and date are available from the U.S. Naval Observatory, so the researchers even tested for links between depression scores and hours of sunlight on the day a score was collected. If light is responsible for SAD, then looking at hours of sunlight should be a sensitive way to detect people with SAD among the general population, they thought.”
That’s not what they found. Not at all. Hours of light had nothing to do with reported depression rates internationally.
Yet although there’s not enough scientific “evidence” to claim its reality, many people will swear they suffer the “winter blues.” It’s interesting, however, that some people find warmer months are harder for them. So, quite the opposite, they get mopey when the birds start chirping and stores start selling camping equipment.
Whether it can be statistically proven or not, whether it has something to do with the holiday season occurring during the winter, or whether it’s about how close you are to the sun, if it’s in your experience — if you detect every year that it’s harder for you to function when it’s cold and murky, then how do you help yourself?
Most of us can’t afford winter homes or vacations to Tahiti. So what do you do?
1) Try “light therapy.”
This is basically a special box that emits light, which is believed to affect someone’s circadian rhythm and increase melatonin, which is important in the sleep-wake cycle. Another small but impressive study showed that light therapy was very effective, especially when compared with a group who believed they were getting the same treatment but were not (what’s called a “placebo” group). This is exciting news if you don’t want to take medications or you’ve failed medication treatment.
If you look on Amazon for light boxes, you’ll find several different varieties, ranging from around $40 to over $200. The Mayo Clinic advises that you check especially with your eye doctor before choosing this route.
2) Get some exercise.
I can’t stress enough the benefits of exercise for depression. Many patients have struggled fitting it into their schedules, but when they do, it can make a huge difference in their mood and energy level. Yes, you have to get up earlier. Or yes, you have to budget for a gym membership. Yet exercise has been shown to be as effective as other kinds of treatment – and it’s available 24/7. All you have to do is walk, or skip, or stretch, or jump.
3) Confront your “shoulds.”
Marie Kondo has written a New York Times best-seller about cleaning out your home. She suggests “thanking” the things that have meant something to you, or have helped you in some way, but strongly recommends keeping only the things that bring you joy in the present. Whether or not you think that’s all a little much, the popularity of the book suggests that people are yearning for simpler, more meaningful experiences.
If you tend to over-do, over-plan or over-schedule, that habit can become worse during the holidays. Ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it brings my joy, because I’ve always done it, because others expect it, or because I should do it?”
If you tend to get depressed from being overwhelmed, it may be an incredibly important question to ask. If you’re exhausted or sleep-deprived, you can easily become down and your thinking can become negative.
4) Practice letting go of shame.
The beginning of a new year is a time many of us assess where we’ve been, and where we’re going — what goals did we meet last year, and what are the directions we’d like to move in the next?
If you focus solely on what didn’t happen this year — the twenty pounds you didn’t lose, the exercise you didn’t get, the vacation with the kids you didn’t take — and let that disappointment be your entire focus, those thoughts can easily lead to shame or bitterness. What is much more helpful is to be compassionate with yourself and try to understand what undermined your goals.
Shaming yourself leads to paralysis. You tell yourself you’re not valuable or good because those goals weren’t met, those changes didn’t occur. And guess what? Instead of being more likely to work on things you want to change in the coming year, you’ll stay stuck. And depression is likely to set in.
A question I recommend, when your thoughts are turning toward beating yourself over the head, ask, “Is what I’m feeling helpful in this moment? Is it serving a positive purpose?” If not, distract yourself. Stop your obsessing over it. Turn your mind around to something else.
5) Recognize what grief you have, and allow yourself to feel it.
When the holidays come with the stress on family and connection, and you’ve experienced actual loss or trauma during that year, the sadness you feel can be real. Not “the blues,” but a deep sense of loss. You don’t have to pretend not to feel it.
I heard someone say, who’d lost a family member that year, “I don’t want to be a drag to anyone. I’m afraid I’ll cry or not be able to be a part of things.” (There’s that tendency to “should” again -” I should be okay….”). My response was to give her a hug, and remind her how she would feel if someone else was in her spot.
My own parents died right before Christmas of 2007. I remember well how tough it was. It was important to allow myself to feel whatever I was feeling. And allow others to help me.
Please give yourself the same permission.
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You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”