There are a slew of online resources these days for anyone dealing with a serious case of the winter blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), as it’s now referred to. I’d like to share with you my personal experience of dealing with this condition, in the hopes that I can encourage those of you with self-manageable levels of seasonal depression.
When I was a young mother, in my early thirties, I began to take note of a reliable trend in my winter mood. A dear friend of mine helped me sort through it, and we agreed that late January/early February ushered in for me a time of unusual fatigue, grumpiness, and weight gain. I suffered regularly from “brain fog,” and complained more often during the winter. I’m not sure which one of us mentioned seasonal affective disorder. It was a newly recognized condition back then, relatively speaking.
The apropos acronym was coined in 1984, in a paper by Norman Rosenthal and colleagues from the National Institute of Mental Health (the publication was based on a controlled study of SAD, utilizing light therapy). This concept was initially met with much skepticism, but further evidence proved it to be an actual, physical condition. Women and young people are most at risk, and where you live also makes a difference. SAD is more common in populations living more than 30 degrees latitude north or south of the equator. If the climate of your locale offers steady cloud cover through the winter months (without the benefit of snow on the ground to act as a light reflector), you can consider yourself in an even higher risk zone.
I reside in southern Ohio, where a normal, late winter offers overcast skies and a disappointing dearth of snow. (At least now I can make sense of my absurd fondness for snow. When I lived further north, lake-effect snow was actually part of my winter “light therapy,” and I was much happier in February!) In a typical winter, I’d breeze through the holiday season just fine. Then comes my birthday, bringing another happy distraction. After that, the blues would come marching in. Now that I’m older, SAD is usually not such a debilitating force as it used to be. Maybe it’s because my kids are grown and the pace of my life is more relaxed. Maybe it’s a healthier diet, which I initiated many years ago, after my battle with breast cancer. Whatever the reason(s), winters of late haven’t been so challenging.
This winter, however, is different. I’m noticing the sadness creeping up on me once again. My chronic illness issues (most likely brought on from the barrage of baneful treatments used to fight my cancer) also keep me stuck at home for days at a time. I’m a people person, who was born to interact with my fellow man. I’m used to being out and about—planning, organizing, and serving others. My years as a homeschool teacher were a blaze of activities, events, and leadership positions. The kids and I often made it to daily Mass and volunteered for local service organizations. Just two years ago I was still working as an in-home caregiver for the elderly and handicapped, loving my job and my clients. These days you’re likely to find me stuck at home, suffering from fatigue, dizziness, headaches, and other assorted complaints. This summer, our youngest will be married, which is another bittersweet passage looming ahead. During this time of formidable transition, SAD has snuck up on me once again, kicking me while I’m down.
Just last night I was feeling old and useless, my brain and body too tired to accomplish anything worthwhile. I downloaded the Hoopla app on my iPad, and watched a movie for free, thanks to my local library. Then I cheated on my diet (with potato chips) and went to bed feeling unusually sad and defeated.
Affixing a Smile
This morning, God wakened me with renewed hope. I harkened back to my survival skills of old, dusting off the cobwebs from a favorite acronym I used to rely on during my seasons of SAD.
“AFFIXED SMILE,” is my very own creation, and I offer it now for your use. It’s a double-edged sword, which can be taken literally, as in, just put on a happy face (which often does, in itself, help chase the blues away), but also as an acronym which stands for:
It’s pretty self-explanatory, really. Don’t sit around all by yourself—make plans regularly to hang out with the people you love! For exercise, do some mall-walking with those friends, or go bowling. The goal of a healthier diet can be approached by baby steps. Remove one or two known allergy/inflammation linked foods, such as wheat or milk, and see what happens. Add more greens, and reduce sugar intake. It’s so worth the effort!
The next two go together as the spiritual element of my plan, the reading of scripture (or other, faith-based writings), and meditating on what you read. Meditation can bring about spiritual “illumination,” but actual light therapy has been proven to help with SAD. Laughter can be squeezed in with any and all of the above-mentioned activities, but especially when hanging out with loved ones. And the command to encourage reminds me to focus more on others than on myself. There’s always someone who is going through more trying times than I. Sometimes, I just need to volunteer somewhere, or take a meal to a family in need.
Mix all of these things together, and you just might notice the corners of your mouth starting to curve upwards. Then, before you know it, Easter will be here, with brightness and warmth infusing your soul with new life. It’s worked for me. Forcing an AFFIXED SMILE has helped me to refocus, and reboot. I hope it helps you, too!