Beating the seasonal blues
Autumn has arrived. Summer in the Northwest is everyone’s favorite season. The sky is a deep blue and the sun shines. We all look back at those lazy, bright days of summer with warm nostalgia.
I love the long days of summer. On July 4th, we have almost 16 hours of daylight. The sun rises around 5:15 a.m. and sets at 9:10 p.m. The western sky is lit until almost 10 p.m. It’s tough to get kids to bed in the summer and they’re up with the birds. The summer sun feeds our Northwest spirit.
But by October 15th, we only have around 10 hours and 50 minutes of daylight. The sun rises at 7:28 a.m. and will set at 6:21 p.m. By December 21, the winter equinox, we will be down to a paltry 8 and a half hours of daylight. It gets dark.
I notice this change in early October. With the cloudier skies and the shorter days, I feel a little groggier and less energetic. When I first moved here, 27years ago, I wasn’t sure why I felt so logy. With a little research, I learned that I suffer from symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADS). Some years ago, I bought a light box. I read the newspaper in front of my bright light for 30 minutes yesterday. It felt good.
According to the National Institute of Health, symptoms of SADS build up slowly in autumn and early winter and can include increased appetite and weight gain, increased sleep, less energy and ability to concentrate, social withdrawal, loss of interest in work and other activities, and irritability. It is estimated that over 14 million Americans may go into a full-bore depressive episode during short winter months. But 33 million more Americans can have symptoms like mine, and have declines in cheerfulness, productivity, and energy.
There’s no question that some individuals suffer more from these seasonal symptoms than others. There is probably genetic loading for this factor. My ancestors came from southern climates where there is an abundance of light. Somehow my body and brain reacts to the shortage of winter sunshine in the Northwest.
The biochemical mechanisms of SADS aren’t well understood. Some researchers believe that Melatonin production in the brain is decreased during the low-light days of winter. This may contribute to the symptoms of SADS.
Here are some tips for beating these winter blahs and blues:
• Dawn simulators and bright light boxes. For 25 years, I’ve had a “dawn simulator” which is globe attached to a clock. Thirty minutes before the alarm goes off, the globe behaves like the rising sun. It gets brighter and brighter over the half hour. I wake to a lightened room. This reduces the grogginess that I used to feel waking in a dark room. Bright light boxes, or light therapy, should generate 10,000 lux of light. I spend 30-60 minutes a day reading in front of my box. Amazon has a wide variety of boxes and simulators for sale.
Both dawn simulators and light exposure really help.
• Exercise. Regular exercise is a great antidote for the winter blahs. Put on your rain gear and go for a walk. My colleague notes that “there is no bad weather, just bad rain gear.” Getting outside, even in the clouds, is helpful and important for beating these blues.
Don’t stop moving just because it’s winter. Start something new—Zumba, yoga classes, dance classes, or swimming. Mix it up and shake it up.