Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cold + Snow + Winter + Stress + Holidays = SAD

For those who are predisposed to what some call "the blues", others call "stress" and professionals may refer to as "a depressive state", the frigid temperatures, sun-less days and mounting holiday to-do lists are enough to send even the cheeriest of individuals over the edge.

I have to say, from the first frost until the last flake of dirty March snow melts, I'm in kind of a funk. Sure, there's something to be said for cozy nights by the fire, blankets, and "staying in", but too much of a good thing for me can lead to fatigue, weight gain, and an overall feeling of sluggish "Idontwannagetupinthemorning-itis".

I make light of it, but it's a heavy subject, and it's called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short.

Cute, huh? Wonder what happy-go-lucky researcher came up with that one?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that occurs around the same time every year - usually starting in the fall and continuing through the winter months.

Here are some of the possible symptoms:
* Depression
* Hopelessness
* Anxiety
* Loss of energy
* Social withdrawal
* Oversleeping
* Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
* Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
* Weight gain
* Difficulty concentrating and processing information.

There are all kinds of theories on the causes of SAD. One is that the decreased amounts of light we get during this time of year screws with our internal clock, as well as certain chemical and hormonal levels.

One of the treatments for SAD is light therapy, where you basically sit near a special lamp that mimics natural outdoor light. This is supposed to affect certain brain chemicals that are linked to mood, regulate your sleep patterns, and "reset your clock". I've never tried it myself, but I know people who swear by its effectiveness.

There's also the medication route, which I support if regulated. It took me a long time to realize that seeking treatment or medication for "mental" issues is no different than seeing a doctor and getting a prescription for your high blood pressure. Better to bite the bullet (or the pill) than to live in a sad, helpless existence. Like my pediatrician used to say, "Whatever you need to do to get you through the day." But always go through your physician, and realize that you may have to try several meds and dosages before you find the one that works best for you.

Aside from these more technical means, there are some techniques that I have learned over the years that have helped me to survive the winter blues. The thing is, you have to implement them early, before you settle in for your long winter's nap and throw in the towel. Here are some suggestions:

1) Have a plan. Know that this happens to you, rather than think, "Well, maybe this time it won't." If you never feel the need to implement your strategy, no harm done. If you do and the symptoms never even materialize or are lessened, then pat yourself on the back and call the day a success.

2) Set a time to exercise. I recently heard a quote that is oh, so true for me: "The longer you wait in the day to exercise, the less likely you will." Now, if you're on a strict schedule and go to the gym three days a week immediately after work then you've got your plan in place. But if you're like me and work out at home, it's easy to get distracted by laundry, bills, TV and curling up in the fetal position in your bed. I have a set time each morning that I exercise. Sometimes it's only 20 minutes, but it's something - every day. And it helps.

3) Try to get outside. No, getting the mail doesn't count. Remember when we were younger and could stay outside in bitter temperatures for hours without feeling cold? Well, we were MOVING. Now we adults go outside and stand there and chat with each other while we watch our kids play. GET INVOLVED. Pull them around in the sled. Make a snowman with them. Throw a snowball. Heck, throw a frisbee. Just get out there and get moving. BONUS: It counts as your exercise!

4) Watch the carbs. It might just be me, but it seems like in the winter I crave the warm comfort of foods like bread and chips. While they may taste good going down, they do nothing for my winter metabolism that seems to have come to a screeching halt. Make sure you eat balanced meals - low-fat, comfort soups, fruits and veggies and whole grains. Oh, and advice I should take myself: DRINK WATER. The air is dry and your skin is sucking every little morsel of moisture it can. That cracking noise? That's your body saying, "WATER ME."

5) Have something to look forward to. This is probably one of the most important things for me in getting through this time of year. If I see nothing ahead but an endless instruction manual of "Work. Kids. Bed. Later. Rinse. Repeat." then I'm more likely to sink into the depressive quicksand. If I can mix my calendar up a little with, say, a weekend trip to Chicago with friends, or indoor rock climbing with the kids on a day off, or maybe hosting a Superbowl party, then it shifts my focus a little. Have something on the horizon that you can count the days until and you'll be more likely to muddle through the interim.

There's a lot more I could say on this subject. I don't want to minimize Seasonal Affective Disorder, nor do I want to give the impression that there aren't many people out there who suffer from types of depression that are much more serious than SAD. While this blog may be a good read for them, they need to seek professional help just like they would for any serious physical ailment. But for those of us who are pretty confident that SAD is just that - a seasonal thing - then the suggestions listed above just might make you smile.


  1. Aim, this is such a wonderful post. I battled with SAD for YEARS and for years SAD was winning; now I am happy to report that I plow through my winters with lots of happiness and joy and smiles and rainbows and puppy dogs and all that happy crap. Sure, I still have days where the funk brings me down, but it's nowhere near what I used to go through. I "medicate" through exercise and for me that was enough and it changed my life. I still have a "blue day" now and again, but I just bundle-up and go for a quick 10 minute walk and I have found that breathing in some crisp, ice-cold air actually feels AMAZING. Also, I have found that being open enough with my friends to say, "I'm feeling blue. Let's hang out." has helped a lot. It's nothing to feel ashamed about, and that took me FOREVER to accept. I am proud of the fact that I prefer sunshine over the gray. But I'm also proud of the fact that I figured out a way to deal with it and to, for the most part, overcome it. I am so thankful to you for posting this blog. I'm going to forward it to all my crazy friends. :)

  2. Oh, and also: Oatmeal is a great, "I want some bread" substitute. And much better for you. You can get packets of instant organic oatmeal at just about any grocery store in town and in two mintues it's like your eating a big fat steaming bowl of hug. Sprinkle cinnamon on it -- cinnamon is good for regulating blood sugar and balancing your body's chemicals.


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