I can understand why ancient societies worshipped Apollo (a.k.a. the Sun). While I wouldn’t say I, myself, exactly worship the Sun, I discovered while living in Boston I needed that familiar mass of incandescent gas more than I realized. And, although Boston is not technically within the Arctic Circle, it’s closer to it than Atlanta (where I grew up). This means Boston has longer winters and, most significantly, shorter days during the winter than, say, Atlanta.
I remember so well walking out to Mass. Ave. to get my afternoon tea at 3:30 PM only to observe it was nearly sundown. If Boston was more like Key West, we’d all be standing under the slate skies, knee-deep in snow and drinking margaritas instead of tepid tea before, well, going back into the office for three more hours. It was only when I became a stay-at-home mother in the blustery suburbs and joined a playgroup that we, the moms, began the Friday sundown margarita tradition locally. It was officially known as Wine and Whine.
In the interest of everyone’s overall wellbeing, I don’t think I can recommend breaking out the margaritas during playdates as the solution to the winter doldrums, which, if more pernicious, is a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD).
Even though, like Barbie and Ken, they seem to go together, drinking and depression don’t make the best coupling. They are like the “karmic” love that is easy to fall into and near impossible to escape.
However, there were other features of that playgroup beyond the drinking. I think those are worth mentioning as possible remedies for the blues that hit just before Thanksgiving and persist through Mid-April.
First, though, let’s review the symptoms of SAD:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
If you suffer from depression, you will likely notice similarities in the symptom list. A good doctor will be able to help you sort out your symptoms and render a proper diagnosis. The key to SAD is, of course, the cyclical timing of it with the seasons.
I don’t know how long I had this disorder, but I suspect I’d had it my whole life to some degree. However, it was only when I moved north that it became more pronounced due to the more pronounced seasonal darkness.
Furthermore, with the birth of each child, my symptoms seemed to strengthen so that by the time I had my third child I was feeling pretty miserable by February and March. Ultimately I insisted that my family move south and, just for the record, this did help.
One feature of my own SAD that stands out to me is the fact that I never really feel awful until February. I have thought about this often and think I know why.
Even though I do a really good impression of Scrooge at Christmastime because of the zany party/event schedule and nauseating (for me at least) degree of purchasing and resultant piles of dead, unusable wrapping material that accrue only to be thrown out 48 hours after first use, I still love the twinkly lights, the candles, the fire in the fireplace, the music and the magic that is still evident in the experience for my children (even though they are on their way to adulthood!).
Also, because I am, by this time, feeling so overwhelmed by the excesses of the winter holidays, I feel utterly thrilled to get to the Spartan crispness of January. January is like one long personal-leave day from the over-the-top busy-ness of December. Then, there’s February…
Taken from both my own experience and from suggestions around the web, here is a list of strategies to help you thrive during your darker months and moods:
- Talk to a doctor: Because this condition is a form of depression, it should be taken seriously even though it is temporary. You may need medication and/or talk therapy to get through the worst of it. Make sure you tell a medical practitioner about your symptoms so that you have a qualified person helping you to monitor your own situation.
- Get a light box: Light therapy is a legitimate and clinically proven way to treat SAD. I love my light box! I love the little clicking noise the timer makes. I love the ionized air-smell. And I love the way I feel after sitting next to it for just 30 minutes (the recommended daily treatment time). Also, I should note that, as I am wont to do, I ignored the instruction manual and used the box for additional 30-minute sessions during the same day and it is true: you will get “giddy” and possibly have difficulty sleeping if you do not follow the instructions for the device. 30 minutes, daily, does the trick. It’s magic.
- Keep the holiday lights up: They do this all over New England and I think I know why: it’s #$&*ing cheerful, that’s why! Sure, you can jeer at the sad-looking wreaths on the doors in April, but those blinky lights on the bushes are better than Prozac. Plus, what with the six-foot snowdrifts, it’s just easier to take the decorations down when the lilacs bloom.
- Stay social: I think the tradition of seeing other adults at least every Friday evening, religiously, was what made the winters go by more quickly and more pleasantly. Yes, we drank. However, underneath the refreshments, it was the companionship that made that group so wonderful. These are still some of my dearest friends.
- Make the holidays work for you: Most people celebrate something during December and exchange presents as a result. You may have your own gripe with the holidays that you could tweak so that the whole enterprise suits you better. I know friends who’ve put a stop to treks to a distant state or country that made the season more hassle than celebration. To get over my revulsion to the material overload, I began substituting experiences for stuff. This makes me like Christmas a little bit more.
- Get outside: Even though it’s cold, the sun still shines in the depths of winter. I do so much better when I have a daily walk. Even missing one day is noticeable in terms of my mood. When my work schedule got especially nuts and I was not home until 8:30 PM, I just put on my sneakers first thing and made myself go outside. Even walking in darkness was helpful. The fresh air seems to make a difference just as much as the sunlight.
- Exercise: Daily exercise cures so many ills, and this is one of them. Last winter was rainy so going outside was difficult. As a substitute, I tried to make myself do yoga on a daily basis and this helped, too.
Nowadays, even though I still feel the SAD symptoms on occasion, I know exactly what works for me and it just takes one walk outside or one light box session and all is right with the world.