Every year, as the calendar inches towards the fall equinox, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach. Here we go again, I think, as the days get shorter, the sunlight gets weaker, and I start wanting to hibernate.
The Sunday, Sept. 23 Luann comic strip summarizes my feelings perfectly. Luann, the cranky teen, eyes the September calendar and exclaims "It's official! Summer's over! Now begins the long gloomy decline into the cold darkness of winter!" Then she falls face-first onto the couch, going "Waaaa....". And her father makes the incisive comment "And that's why it's called 'fall'."
Right around the equinox, I start feeling exactly the same way as Luann. I suffer from "seasonal affective disorder" or SAD, a severe form of the "winter blues" or "winter blahs" that you've probably heard about. For me, it's a chronic problem. I get very tired... can't get up in the morning, want to stay in bed all weekend, etc. My mind gets slow and fuzzy. My thoughts seem to retreat deep inside me, and are almost muffled. To retrieve them, I spend long periods of time alone, quietly fishing them back up to the surface. I eat more starchy, fatty junk food. I get crabby. I talk very little. In really bad years, I burst into tears for no reason and spend entire days simply trying to hold myself together (at a corporate Christmas party in 2000, I lasted all of 30 minutes before I started sobbing and just couldn't stop. Needless to say, I left the party early.)
My situation is fairly severe. However, lots and lots of people get SAD's milder cousin, the winter blues. Winter's shorter days and weaker sunlight wreak havoc on our internal chemistry and body rhythm, and in some people, a mild winter depression is the result. Winter blues rob people of energy, motivation, and focus, and may cause sadness that can be anywhere from mild to severe.
Fun in the Sun is the Easiest, Cheapest Cure
There are natural and medical ways to deal with the winter blues. My first suggestion is free and all-natural: If it's sunny out, get outside, every day, first thing in the morning and around noon, to soak up the rays. If it's cold, bundle up. Getting more sun is the only way to really "cure" winter depression. I can't stress this enough... sun will make you feel better. Yesterday, I noticed I was feeling blah and lethargic in the early afternoon. So I went outside and sat on my front steps for a few minutes, with my face turned to the sun. It helped me get a little more pep in my step and a little more mental focus. Getting early-day sun helps tell your brain that it's morning and time to be alert. Midday sun is the most direct sun you will get all day, and therefore the most helpful.
For those of you who like to plan ahead, you can start "treating" the winter blues in the spring and summer. Get outside as much as you can, especially on sunny days. I do this religiously. My body seems to have solar panels hidden somewhere. If I get them charged up by getting lots of sun in the warmer months, I find it a little easier to get through the winter.
Other Solutions Require More Cash
An extreme solution to the winter blues is to simply get away from the cold and dark and go somewhere closer to the equator (where there is more sun each day, and more intense sun). This could be a long vacation, or perhaps you could permanently relocate to a sunnier climate. I lived in super-sunny New Mexico for three years, and loved winter there. Instead of spending September through April feeling blue (like I do here in Maryland), I spent about two weeks in December and two weeks in January feeling a little depressed. It was amazing. I'm sorry I had to move back here to a cloudier, more northern city.
1. Look at pictures or TV images of warm, sunny places. I find myself drawn to CSI: Miami in the winter. The lush orange-yellow of the light in the show perks up my mood a little.
2. Try light therapy. I find this very helpful. Light therapy uses intense fluorescent lights that give off no UV rays. You sit in front of the lights for 30 minutes to 2 hours every day, typically in the morning. The intense light mimics sunshine and can reduce depression symptoms. I have a Sunbox light box that I use every morning from October through March. I typically eat breakfast or read while I use it (you have to sit pretty close to the light for the treatment to work). Some people take their light boxes to work. And at least one company makes a light therapy hat that is supposed to work nearly as well as the larger light boxes.
3. Try antidepressants. Some people find relief by taking antidepressants only in the winter months. Others who take antidepressants year-round increase their dose in the winter.
4. Exercise. Exercise is an effective tool against depression of any kind. Recent studies show it is nearly as effective as antidepressant medications in relieving depression symptoms. (See abstract for "Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder")
5. Get some family/friend/professional support. I have a very good friend who gets SAD, too, and we call each other regularly to commiserate. I'm not sure it helps with my symptoms, but it does help with my general state of mind. Talk therapy can help if you would rather speak to a neutral third party.
6. Try full-spectrum light bulbs. I worked with someone in New Mexico who suffered from severe seasonal depression in spite of living in a very sunny climate. Every fall, she switched her regular light bulbs to full-spectrum bulbs to give her a boost. These bulbs are also sometimes called "daylight" bulbs. Companies like Ott-lite carry an array of full-spectrum bulbs and lamps.
Mix and match these solutions until you find a plan that works for you!