“I just feel so, blah.” Said Carly, age 31. “Once the leaves fall off the trees, everything gets so gloomy and grey. I just can’t get motivated and I feel sluggish all day. When the snow hits, I just wish I could crawl into bed and stay there until Spring. I joke that I must be part bear, but honestly, the way I feel most of the fall and winter doesn’t put me in much of a laughing mood.”
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 6% of people suffer from full-blown seasonal depression and another 20% experience what might be termed a more serious case of “winter blues” that include symptoms like sluggishness, irritability, changes in sleep and eating patterns, weight gain, and difficulty being around other people.
Interestingly, though, winter blues don’t have to be a foregone conclusion. In sections of Scandinavia that experience “polar night” from November through January experience remarkably low rates of seasonal depression or winter blues suggesting that the problem may not be as much a deeply ingrained biological problem as much as it is a state of mind. Inhabitants of these northernmost regions of the planet have developed some fantastic strategies for beating the winter doldrums. Whether you tend to experience more serious manifestations of seasonal affective disorder, or just find yourself dragging through the winter months, here are some simple things you can do–drawn from both the experience of our northern neighbors and the latest research– to not just survive but thrive when the winter sets in.
During the long darkness that descends with Norwegian winter, people have a remarkable number of celebrations, get-togethers and parties. Although people going through seasonal blues often feel that relationships are a chore, resist the temptation to hide out. Make a point of getting together with friends even more regularly than you do in the sunny times of the year. Invent a reason to host a party. Brighten your home with friendship, fun foods, and some festive decorations!
While it is never a good idea to isolate, Scandinavians have a great way to make the times they are home alone more joyful. They get koselig, literally, “cozy.” For them, the long winter months are a time for sitting by the fireplace, lighting lots of candles (at mealtimes and just because) and/or huddling under warm blankets with a warm drink and good books. This is also a great time of year to do put a little extra effort into making your home…homey. Even if you’re the only one at home, you deserve to live in a nurturing space. Put some energy into making your home a respite; place that is welcoming and pleasant to come back to.
3. Get Out!
When they’re tired of cocooning, Scandinavians get out of the house and enjoy winter activities like hiking, skiing, sledding and tubing. If you have seasonal blues or even seasonal depression, winter is a great time to develop that all-important, abundant-living skill, leaving your comfort zone. Especially if you don’t like the cold, or the snow, get out of the house and hang around people who do. Be willing to learn from the example of those who feel energized by the cold weather. Studies show that people who challenge their comfort zones and are open to new experiences–even experiences that they don’t think they would enjoy–live more enjoyable, fulfilling lives.
4. Deal with the Past
Moving off the experience of our Norwegian neighbors and into what the research has to say about seasonal depression, we find that many people who struggle with the winter months do so because of bad memories that accompany the winter months. For those who grew up in chaotic homes or experienced the death of a loved one in the winter months, this time of year–especially with so many major holidays–can be particularly painful. Psychologists refer to the pain caused by memories associated with particular times of year as “anniversary reactions.” The root memories causing these reactions aren’t always obvious. One good way to identify anniversary reactions is to sit with the feelings you are having and write our whatever images or memories bubble up to the surface. Don’t ask what memories are “causing” your feelings. Instead, ask what memories attend your feelings and how those memories might be contributing to your gloominess. Remind yourself that these times are past and make a point of writing out all the ways you’ve grown since you had those experiences and all the things you have to be grateful for in your present.
5. Be Grateful
Speaking of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal (and reviewing your lists regularly) is a proven way to increase your happiness set-point (the natural degree of happiness you tend to experience from day-to-day) by 25%! Especially if you are experiencing winter blues, make sure you take stock of all the things you have to be grateful for each day, especially the friends and people that make your life a better place to be.
Another way to be grateful is to make what St. Paul calls a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:5). Praising God, even when you don’t feel like it (which is where the “sacrifice” part comes in) reconnects us with God’s love and providence in those times when we feel lonely and blah.
6. Get Help
Sometimes, self-help isn’t enough. If you find that your winter blues are negatively affecting your work, health, or relationships, it is time to talk with a professional. A mental health professional can help determine whether medication, light therapy, cognitive-behavior therapy (all treatments that have been shown to be affective with Seasonal Affective Disorder) or some combination of these would be most effective for you. The good news is that whether you are suffering from milder or more serious problems with seasonal depression, treatments are available that can help get you to happier, more joyful place. Don’t buy the lies that say, “this is just the way I am” or “this is how it has to be.” With a little help, you can learn to see all the good things winter has to offer and learn to love the gifts it brings.
Dr. Greg Popcak, the author of many books and the host of More2Life Radio, directs The Pastoral Solutions Institute, which offers pastoral counseling by telephone to Catholics around the world. Learn more at www.CatholicCounselors.com or call 740-266-6461