How to Cope With SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Balancing Mental Health During the Winter Months

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I often think of how we are all spinning on a giant blue and green ball, suspended in a vast dark nothingness. I like to remind my kid of this often as well. Attempting to wrap my head around the miraculous and bizarre nature of our existence, I am reminded that I am so small in relation to the universe. This perspective allows me to see that my problems are never as big as my mind imagines them to be. The complex machinery of the universe, the Earth, the human body, and life in general, leave me with a sense of awe and wonderment.

All Man-made machines and technologies are in some part derived from the intelligence of the natural world. A quick Wiki search showed me that in 1827, Josef Ressel patented a screw-like system to propel boats, allowing for a decrease in the manual labor required for boat propulsion. Ressel Wasn’t the first to use this science, but the first to call the invention “his”. It was back in 200BC when Archimedes, a crazy smart mathematician — think along the same lines as Pythagoras — used the same mechanics to get water out of boats and to irrigate crops. The mechanical device was named “Archimedes Screw”. Although this propeller system has evolved much over time, the basic machinery is the same. What a wonderful invention, allowing for easier irrigation of crops, keeping ships from sinking, and providing more efficient travel by boat. The thing is, the very same structure is found in the flagellum of microorganisms. Flagella are whip-like tails on some bacteria that propel them towards food and away from danger. So, while it was genius for these men to draw upon the natural world for inspiration, it is nature that is the true inventor.

The basic machinery of the natural world functions in cycles, like the waves of the ocean, always ebbing and flowing. Throughout the history of Earth, the climate has cycled in and out of ice ages. We cycle through the seasons. There are cycles to the tides and the phases of the moon. The cycle of photosynthesis transforms carbon dioxide into oxygen to sustain human life. The water cycle is when water evaporates into the Earth’s atmosphere to once again recycle as rain. The female human body goes through a monthly cycle. Every year on January first, we begin a new annual cycle. Carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles…

Ok, you get it. That is a lot of cycling.

All of that brings you to this point: We cannot control the cycles of the natural world, but by developing self-awareness, we can become aware of our own cycles. By doing so, we create better outcomes for our mental and emotional health when challenges arise.

An estimated more than 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months, also known as the “winter blues.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are four times more likely to receive a SAD diagnosis than men. Due in part, to our ability to more easily recognize what is happening within our bodies, we have more awareness of our natural cycles. Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterized as a mood disorder, most often resembling depression. The symptoms include lower energy, increased appetite, difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings, and less motivation. While not typically severe, this can be a very difficult time of year for individuals who have a history of severe depression or bipolar disorder.

As the days get shorter, yet another cycle comes into play: Circadian rhythm, also known as our internal clock. This cycle is not specific to humans but is an integral system for animals, plants, and microorganisms. This rhythm is a twenty-four-hour cycle that is controlled by the amount of light in our environment. The sun comes up and begins a chemical cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that signal to our body that it is time to get up and get going. As the sun goes down, the same cascade occurs, but with different chemicals, melatonin being the dominant hormone. While the exact causes of SAD are unknown, it seems likely that there is a link to our circadian rhythm.

Reduced sunlight also lowers our serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical signal (neurotransmitter) in the body that has an impact on many different systems and plays many different roles in our biological makeup. It is believed that depression and mood disorders are reliant on levels of this chemical. Most anti-depressants manipulate serotonin in the brain in one way or another. Serotonin is labeled as one of our few “happiness” brain chemicals, and the tough part, lower levels are linked to increases in appetite. As a natural appetite suppressant, serotonin is something to want to be balanced in the body. Eating a balanced, healthy diet is tough enough without our own chemistry sabotaging our efforts.

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. I see this description as twofold, metaphorical and literal. This vitamin is literally produced by the sun. When our skin absorbs sunlight, our bodies turn cholesterol into vitamin D. This could be considered a win, win: less cholesterol, more vitamins. Metaphorically, our days are brighter when we have balanced levels of vitamin D. Majority of Americans are deficient in this vitamin and that has vast consequences for our health, especially our mood. Lower levels of vitamin D allow for an increased risk for depression.

Shorter days mean less sun, which means less serotonin and vitamin D. An increase in melatonin leads to less energy and more sleepiness. Our natural appetite suppressant is lower. I mean, could winter be ruder? This natural cycle leaves us feeling lazy, hungry, and sad.

For years I suffered from debilitating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some of it had to do with underlying emotional instability and bouts of severe depression. As I now know, a lot of my symptoms occurred naturally from my body chemistry being affected by the season and shorter days. The depressed mood doesn’t happen immediately for me, as soon as the time changes. I usually do not begin to feel the effects until January. With awareness comes tolerance. Having an understanding of what is happening in my body, I am better able to cope with the inevitable depressed mood, low energy, and desire for comfort foods. Understanding means that I am no longer a victim of severe depression.

A healthy, balanced lifestyle is pure magic. Once you find balance in life, you can notice when the scales tip towards imbalance. You become more sensitive to your natural cycle. It’s funny, I used to think that “balance” was a frou-frou word, it had no meaning. How could you acknowledge something that you have never experienced? It was an idea until I did the work to understand it. Now that I live a life in balance, I have to do the minimal work of maintaining it.

The easiest way to combat the effects of SAD is to know that it’s coming. Having awareness of how the cycles of life influence the way you feel and act allows you to mentally prepare and have healthy coping skills ready to go. My favorite coping strategy for wintertime? Grace. I allow myself the space to feel a little bit lazy and honor my low energy levels. We cannot perform at peak every day. I soothe more with comfort foods, even if this means I gain a couple of pounds. I maintain mental and emotional balance by doing the things daily that I know make me feel better, such as meditation, moving my body, and getting outdoors. Although my sessions for these practices may run a bit shorter, I muster the motivation to get them in because the quality of my life relies on these daily practices. I know this about myself.

While self-awareness and mental preparation are the best defenses for Seasonal Affective Disorder, you could also try light therapy. Some individuals find relief using artificial light. You can purchase a light that simulates sunlight and sit near it for about thirty minutes before the sun comes up. Or, you could create a goal of getting out in the sunshine for fifteen minutes a day. We cannot alter the seasons or the cycles of nature. We can recognize our patterns and responses so that we are better able to handle anything the universe throws at us. Awareness of how we fit in this world and what works for us is pure liberation.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

~ Pete Seeger (1959)

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Natalie Greer

Natalie Greer

Well-being curator + mom + yogi + registered nurse + board-certified nurse health coach — perpetually attempting to capture humanity with language.