Winter Blues? Or Something More?
Our moods can be greatly influenced by our environment, so sunny days may be happy days, but once winter sets in and sunshine decreases, we’re at risk of feeling down or even depressed. Whether it’s the winter blues or actual depression, mindfulness can support us in improving our state of mind and restoring our emotional well-being.
I’m hoping by the time this show airs next week, our storms will have finally passed here in L.A. It’s quite cold and since I don’t have central heat, space heaters are running around the clock, evidenced by my whopping electric bill this month. We had snow last week and now we’re drowning in rain, again. This is particularly frustrating for me because I moved from Wisconsin, after having lived in upstate New York, for one reason – good weather. I wanted wet mud and freezing temperatures and shoveling snow and slick roads in my rearview mirror, looking forward to sunshine and warmth all year round. And to be fair, I had it for about 30 years, but the last few years it’s been on a steady decline.
That’s a problem here for many reasons. First, while our weather is not nearly as severe as many other parts of the world, we’re not prepared for it. We have terrible drainage causing widespread flooding and poor driving conditions on top of people not knowing how to drive in inclement weather. There are typically 10 to 15 car crashes an hour all day long when the skies open up and millions dread the morning commute to work even more than usual. Minor accidents can exceed a thousand in one day.
Many of our hills are stripped of all vegetation from summer fires creating mudslide hazards and it is a helpless feeling as we watch houses slide into the houses below them. We’re in a severe drought, so you’d think an upside to all of this rain would be increased water, but L.A. was designed to drain the water into the ocean to minimize damage from floods. Not only does 80 to 90% of all of this rain flow straight into the Pacific Ocean, that flow generates dangerous bacteria levels, wreaking havoc for humans and wildlife along the coast.
We’ve got atmospheric rivers in southern California causing flooding combined with blizzards in the northern part of the state, the east coast has been slammed with terrible snow, rain and winds, and the south has widespread freezing. And of course, it’s not just the U.S. having weather challenges. Mozambique and New Zealand are both dealing with major cyclones while England is on alert for blizzards and bone chilling temps. Brazil’s deadly flooding and landslides have been so bad, many cities had to cancel Carnival. These weather events are increasingly causing death and destruction, but even without tragedy, weather affects most of us psychologically and these extremes in weather are going to affect us even more.
I’ve never been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but I highly suspect I have at least a mild version of it. As soon as it’s grey outside, my energy plummets and my motivation is nil. I’m sure many of you that are packed in feet of snow, dealing with terrible winds, and also being deluged with rain understand what I’m talking about. I recognized I had a problem long ago, actually when I moved to Rochester, New York and spent 4 straight months with nothing but grey skies and snow and have learned to take steps to counteract it so that I can keep feeling good and be productive, but when I hit a period like what is happening now, it’s definitely a struggle.
Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. Symptoms for most people with SAD begin in the fall and continue through the winter months, sapping energy and making most feel moody. Spring finally arrives and the symptoms resolve. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer and dissipates in the fall.
It’s common that symptoms start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses, but I suspect many people are experiencing a prolonged or more intense reaction because of the crazy changes in our weather patterns. Here in L.A., we normally average only about 35 days of measurable rain in an entire year and it only totals about 13 inches. We’re approaching a total of 2 feet just for this season and I don’t know how many days it’s rained so far this winter, but it feels like we’ve only had a handful of days when it hasn’t rained. And those days were mostly cloudy and cold. So SAD is crouching, ready to strike every morning for me lately.
Some of the signs and symptoms of SAD are feeling listless or down nearly every day, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, having low energy or feeling sluggish and having problems with sleeping too much. Thankfully, I don’t have that last problem, but I do have another common symptom, experiencing carbohydrate cravings. I feel more exercise is in my near future.
It’s been pouring here since early this morning and expected to get much heavier tonight, so I ran to the grocery store before the flash flood warnings return. The checker was talking to a customer in front of me about how much she loves the rain and how happy it makes her. I actually like rain, too. That doesn’t seem to be the factor that kicks off my winter blues. It’s the sky. For some reason, I seem to need sunshine.
That may be common for SAD sufferers because experts cite the reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter as causing the onset of SAD. The decrease in sunlight may disrupt our body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression. Another sun-related factor may be the drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, which reduced sunlight can trigger. And the change in seasons can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, one step that may help is to increase vitamin D that may be low due to lack of sunshine, with foods like salmon, swordfish or tuna. I take a D3 supplement because it’s hard to get enough D from foods, but check with your healthcare provider before adding anything to your health routine. I skip the orange juice and dairy products fortified with vitamin D because it’s usually D2 which doesn’t do the trick.
I also make whatever room I’m in as bright as possible. That won’t increase your vitamin D levels, but it lifts the mood.
As Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
I also use aromatherapy that’s tropical or citrus scented. No harm in trying to trick your brain into thinking winter has passed.
Mindset can make an enormous difference, so I consciously make the effort to reframe my negative thoughts. I focus on how different my many outdoor plants look under grey light instead of glaring sunshine. I consider how cozy I might feel curled up with a blanket and a good book. I notice the sounds that we don’t usually hear in L.A., the constant patter of rain on the roof and occasional thunderclaps. I notice the sounds missing that we constantly hear, like gardeners with gas-powered blowers, motorcycles with giant mufflers and helicopters overhead.
And of course, I use mindfulness to further reduce symptoms. Mindfulness can help us become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. This increased awareness can help us identify early signs of SAD and take action to manage symptoms. Mindfulness has been shown to both improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. A regular practice can help us cultivate a sense of calm and relaxation, which can counteract feelings of sadness and lethargy.
SAD can disrupt sleep patterns, but mindfulness can help improve sleep quality. Again, a regular practice can help us relax and let go of worries and concerns, which can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Mindfulness also reduces stress, which is a common trigger for SAD symptoms. By learning to observe our thoughts and emotions without judgment, we can develop a more positive and balanced outlook, even during challenging times.
One theory of the main cause of SAD is the disturbance of the pineal gland, located in the middle brain that regulates patterns of sleeping and waking up. Research indicates that meditation is helpful in the management of SAD because it stimulates the function of the pineal gland, creating more melatonin to promote relaxation. Meditation also increases serotonin levels, which can be prescribed in the treatment of SAD. While practicing longer forms of meditation may not be feasible in our chaotic schedules, adding mindful activities to our routine can definitely reap these benefits as well.
Focusing on the breath softens any negative emotions already present, whether it’s sadness, anxiety, or a feeling of lethargy. Simply bring awareness to your breath wherever you feel it most in the moment, in the nose, throat, chest, or belly. Take several breaths noticing these sensations and then check in to see if you notice a change.
My daily walks have come to a screeching halt due to weather, but we can all practice mindful movement indoors. Exercise has been scientifically proven to aid SAD, but you don’t have to go out in the cold or dampness. Try yoga online, do full body stretches or turn on some music and dance for a few minutes. As you’re doing these activities, stay acutely aware of how your body feels as you move, how your breath moves through your body and how you feel emotionally. When your mind wanders to other things, which it will, simply return your attention back to your movement and breath. It’s catching the distractions that builds your mindfulness muscles.
Reach out to others. If you’re experiencing SAD symptoms, isolation only makes them worse. Connect with someone in person or online. Have a cup of tea together. Call someone you haven’t seen in a long time and catch up. Try to stay present and aware as you converse and notice how much richer it makes the conversation. Connecting with others can relieve stress and build resilience to life’s challenges, so no hibernating through the winter months.
Stay present as you perform your regular tasks. If you’re completely focused on washing the dishes, what the soap smells like, how the suds feel, the weight of the pan in your hands and more, you won’t be focusing on the gloom outdoors and you’ll be building your mindfulness skills.
Plan ahead if you know that seasonal change affects you negatively. There is no medical intervention known to prevent the development of seasonal affective disorder, but if you take steps early to manage the symptoms, you may be able to prevent it from getting worse over time. Lessening the serious changes in mood, appetite and energy levels that can occur may help reduce the severity of symptoms or prevent complications that can arise as the season progresses. That’s important because some of the more serious signs and symptoms of SAD may include feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty, and having thoughts of not wanting to live.
If you experience these feelings or feel down for days at a time and can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, contact a health professional. Medical treatments for managing the symptoms of SAD include light therapy, which has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of cases of SAD, medications such as antidepressants, and psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy which helps us identify negative thought patterns and develop coping skills to manage them.
It's normal to have some days when you feel the winter blues. I can honestly say I don’t like grey skies and I recognize immediately when I’m being affected by them and focus on counteracting the negative effects on my emotional well-being. The severe weather patterns around the globe are certainly causing stress and discomfort for millions of people, and many may understandably be emotionally reacting to specific events. But if you have seasonal affective disorder, you’re less likely to be able to cope with the changing weather severity and patterns, so check in to see if it’s really just the winter blues or something more serious. There is no reason to suffer needlessly, so whether you take the steps I’ve suggested or reach out for professional help, it’s important to take action. If we have robust mental health, we can deal with the challenges, so please remember to mind your mind.
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. Visit AirwaveMedia.com to listen and subscribe to other great shows like The Daily Meditation Podcast, Everything Everywhere and Movie Therapy. We’d deeply appreciate your support at patreon.com/amindfulmoment. Our podcast is now available to view on our YouTube Channel, so be sure to follow us there and on Instagram @amindfulmomentpodcast.
A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.