How are you doing? This is something we routinely ask each other in our culture and I have learned to ask myself this simple but profound question on a very regular basis. It is kind and thoughtful to routinely check in with one's friends as well as with oneself to assess whether any assistive or "corrective" action is required. At this time of the year, my response, most often, both to myself and to anyone who cares to ask, is that I am feeling a little "February". For me feeling "February" means that I am growing weary of the sluggishness and the general despair that our long Winnipeg winter invites into our lives. I notice that I tend to inhabit more of my "shadow" thoughts, habits and general tendencies at this time of the year. Uninvited guests.... negativity, lack of motivation, lethargy, envy, guilt, jealousy, resentment and bitterness seem to inhabit my brain and poison my spirit with their almost daily visits. In an attempt to suffocate and drown these demonic visitors, I want to eat more carbohydrates and drink more coffee. In the past, I am sure that in an attempt to stay ahead of these murky monsters, I have held on to those closest to me, taking them down into the dark chambers of the season with me. Misery loves company. Thankfully, as I have gotten wiser, I have learned to deal with this seasonal state of negativity in a consciously healthy and independent manner, without taking down any innocent bystanders along the way.
The winter blues, the winter blahs, the winter doldrums, as this seasonal intruder is commonly referred to, affects women twice as often as it affects men. 15% of Canadians report experiencing this seasonal interruption in mood, with 2-3% of the Canadian population being diagnosed with its more debilitating sibling, Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Don't we just love when acronyms are fabulously and conveniently descriptive? While those who suffer with the milder version of this seasonal mood interruption can continue to engage in their normal routines, albeit begrudgingly so, those who are diagnosed with SAD are more intensely affected and suffer from a true clinical depression that warrants professional treatment. The symptoms of SAD include feeling depressed most days, feeling hopeless, having low energy, loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable, insomnia or over sleeping, changes in appetite and weight, difficulty concentrating and generalized irritability.
Explanations for the Murky Mess in Our Minds
Psychiatrists and Neuro-Psychologists have been studying seasonal mood changes for several decades. There are a few theories to explain this fall-winter mood disruption and scientists continue to explore them for a better understanding of how we are affected by the shorter days of the cooler seasons. Although here in Winnipeg, we may believe our moods are heading south simply because we have been beaten up by the never-ending harsh cold, wind and snow, it truly is more than a simple wearing down of our spirits by these bitter elements that is to blame for our low energy. It appears that the real culprit is a kink in our master clocks, most likely related to decreased exposure to daytime sunlight. As the days are shorter and we wake up in darkness and drive home from work in darkness, we are getting much less natural light in the fall and winter than we do in the spring and summer months. This decreased sunlight exposure affects our circadian rhythm or our body's internal clock. The brain's response to decreased sunlight exposure is to increase melatonin production (our slow down, sleepy neurotransmitter) and decrease serotonin production (our feel good, get moving, happy neurotransmitter).
Minimizing the Murky Mess in Our Minds
Thankfully there are some simple steps we can take to keep this whole altered mood state under some semblance of control.
1) Embrace the season - Take up snowshoeing, tobogganing, cross country skiing or ice skating. Befriending any perceived enemy always has the effect of a more peaceful co-existence. The seasons will always change and winter will always be longer and colder than we want it to be in these parts. You will feel less controlled by the elements if you can find something you love to do outdoors that at least somewhat celebrates these same troublesome elements.
2) Eat well - A healthy diet will provide you with improved nutritional status and this can affect the interplay of your hormones. A diet high in carbs and caffeine will only temporarily give you a quick energy fix, but in the long-run, simple carbohydrates and caffeine feed in to the low energy cycle of the winter. Ensure your fall and winter diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and lean proteins. Try to consume foods that are rich in Vitamin D as deficiencies of this vitamin have been somewhat consistently found in those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (fortified dairy, fortified soy and almond milk, sardines, Arctic char, salmon, trout, egg yolks) or talk to your physician about Vitamin D supplements. We only get a very small amount of this vitamin (actually a hormone technically speaking) from our diets. Vitamin D is normally synthesized in the skin with exposure to ultraviolet light, UVB in particular. It is important to note that while UVA rays are abundant all year long, UVB rays are not present in the sun when it is lower than 50 degrees above the horizon. In Manitoba, this translates to the time between mid October to mid March, therefore even if we stood outside buck-naked on a sunny winter or fall day, we would not be synthesizing this crucial hormone as we tanned our hides.
3) Exercise - We do know that regular exercise can boost our mood via the release of Endorphins, the improved management of stress, and the more positive self-assessment we are able to connect to. Studies have shown that outdoor exercise, in particular, is most effective at improving mood. In a 2011 review of existing studies comparing indoor exercise to outdoor exercise, researchers concluded that most trials demonstrated an increased improvement in mental well-being when study participants exercised outdoors. Exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, as well as decreased levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
4) Get some sun - Even though our fall and winter sun will not provide us with our Vitamin D requirements, the sunlight will help to interrupt the cycle of melatonin production and serotonin depletion. As the natural light enters the eye, the retina connects with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms. It appears that activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can help to restore a normal internal body clock and thus banish seasonal slug-like symptoms. So get outside, sit in the sunroom and soak up some sun daily. Some physicians will recommend light boxes or dawn simulators (timed light that turns on in your bedroom for 30 minutes before you wake up) to provide artificial light when natural light is hard to come by or proving ineffective. The critical piece for sun or light therapy to be effective is daily exposure. There is still some controversy about the duration and intensity of light exposure required, and this is likely related to the fact that there is a significant amount of individual variability in dosage response. Experiment with yourself, trying the least invasive approach first. Spend 30 minutes a day in a sunny room at work or at home. If that does not seem to be effective, increase your dose by either taking yourself outdoors, committing more time, or discussing the use of artificial light with your healthcare provider.
5) Stay connected - Although you may want to stay home curled up under a warm blanket reading your favourite magazines, ignoring the rest of civilization while nibbling on sweet and salty popcorn and left-over Christmas chocolate, your mood will be better served by getting together with friends and loved ones. If you really want to boost your feel-good hormones, commit to volunteering or spending time doing something for someone else and boost your oxytocin levels...the love hormone that eases stress, boosts sexual arousal and promotes attachment.
6) Relax and surrender to the slower pace of the season - To a certain extent, it is quite healthy to allow yourself to slow down somewhat during the fall and winter months. This is nature's normal cycle, and we witness this seasonal slowing down all around us in nature and especially in our animal kingdom. The function of hibernation or near hibernation is to conserve energy during a period when sufficient food is unavailable and the natural environment is too hostile to make survival likely. Evidence indicates that human responses to the seasonal changes may have been significantly more pronounced before the invention of modern lighting and that the winter blues may in fact have its origins in evolutionary biology. Listening to the body's natural tendency towards more rest can prove to be quite rejuvenating if balanced with an appropriate diet, light exposure, physical activity and social engagement.
7) Seek professional guidance - If you have done your part in attempting to resurrect your normal self, but still feel defeated by your non-compliant mood, it may be time to speak to your family physician. You may be suffering from true Seasonal Affective Disorder. Thankfully, this well-defined depressive disorder responds well to cognitive behavioural therapy, light therapy and pharmaceutical intervention.
Thankfully, the days are getting longer and hopefully, they will soon be warmer as well. I know I can count on March to pull me out of my own little seasonal funk. Until then, I will tame my dark side with a good dose of social commitments, outdoor activity and time spent preparing healthy meals and soaking up that fabulous Winnipeg sunshine in our sun-filled kitchen. I will take time to restore myself by relaxing more than I think I should, honouring my own mind and body's wisdom to seek more quiet time than I am accustomed to. May we all find our way to the sunnier side of ourselves soon!
Feel Better !