Why is it that newspapers (like the one you’re reading now) insist on dedicating issues to “Winter Survival?”
During the winter months, readers tend to need a little encouragement to brave the cold, stay active and resist the urge to slob out on the couch watching TV during their free time.
We at The Phoenix believe people need Winter Survival Guides to remind us that although it seems like life slows down, and depression bubbles up inside us, there are a myriad of tools in our city that can help chase away the winter blues.
But what if concerts at Blue and lattes at CBD don't work? What if, despite your best efforts to plan a productive day and a fun, social night out afterwards, you're plagued by a cloud of sadness you can’t quite pinpoint the source of?
Science would suggest that those who feel their energy and motivation levels sapped from the start are experiencing not just the “winter blues,” but seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression directly related to the changing of the seasons. Symptoms include feeling hopeless, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, difficulty concentrating, low energy levels, problems sleeping, changes in appetite, and an aversion to social interactions. In some extreme cases, SAD can lead to thoughts of suicide. Over three billion people are affected by it worldwide, so it’s safe to assume you’ve experienced it at some point in your life.
I spoke with Cynthia Booker-Bingler, a clinical social worker at Health Affiliates Maine, about how SAD can be treated. She said that she’s spoke with 20 patients just this year about seasonal affective disorder.
“Maine gets less light,” said Booker-Bingler. “So it does affect people more here.”
According to Booker-Bingler, SAD can be serious if not treated. People have lost jobs, friendships and relationships over it. Over time, it can affect your heart’s health and blood pressure. Sometimes it can lead to more serious, permanent forms of depression. But Booker-Singler said that she’s made a difference in some people’s lives just by asking the right questions, diagnosing them with SAD, and directing them towards treatment.
When Booker-Bingler first meets with her patients and suspects SAD, she asks: “How much sleep are you getting at night? How much exposure to light are you getting?”
These questions are important to her because she’s able to pinpoint the source of her patient's depression: a decrease in available sunlight.
“SAD can be serious, but it’s so treatable,” she said. “Light can change people’s lives.”
Besides anti-depressant medication, the most prevalent form of SAD treatment is light therapy. There are special bulbs patients can buy that mimic daylight. Booker-Bingler suggests sitting in front of them for 10-30 minutes during one’s morning routine.
“Once you’re exposed to a little more light, your symptoms start going away,” said Booker-Bingler. “You change your circadian rhythm back to normal.”
But if you’re not too keen on buying these so called “happy lights,” which can range anywhere from $40-200, there are free strategies that can be effective in fighting SAD.
Booker-Bingler suggests watching the sunset, going outside, going for a hike, playing with a dog, building a fort, drinking tea, playing sports, and surrounding yourself with friends.
And like with most cases of depression, it can be hard to practice these forms of self-care if the very nature of your depression makes it difficult to do so. But you must give them a shot — they’re the best tools you’ve got to “survive the winter.”