As the clocks roll back and the first snow falls, you pull out winter gear right along with your annual dread of the bone chilling, windy darkness of a typical Chicago winter. Walking and other outdoor activities are challenging if not impossible. Driving, parking, and waiting for public transportation are a real annoyance, and many of us stay inside when we’d otherwise be out and about.
The effects of a lack of sunlight are firmly grounded in science. Dark days cause our bodies to produce less serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that regulates mood, sleep, and appetite. At the same time, we release melatonin in response to the darker environment and that makes us sleepy.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientist Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, put a name to this misery: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Dr. Rosenthal moved to the US to become a resident at New York State Psychiatric Institute, later taking a research position at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Maryland. He realized he felt sluggish, tired, and depressed during winters on the east coast, something he’d not experienced growing up in South Africa.
Dr. Rosenthal and his colleagues at NIMH conducted a research study on 160 participants who had symptoms of sluggishness, depression, and sleep problems during winter. The principal treatment was a morning routine of light therapy–standing in front of a light fixture that emitted 2500 lux. The results were overwhelmingly positive.
At Dr. Rosenthal’s website, he writes that one light box is no longer enough for him. Instead, each morning he bathes in the artificial sunshine of three light-emitting boxes lined up side-by-side. Today people with SAD are routinely encouraged to buy or rent a light box, though the recommended dosage has increased to 10,000 lux. Along with talk therapy and antidepressants (which raise serotonin), they’re the most commonly prescribed treatment.
A positive aspect to winter?
But what if there were a reason for the lower winter levels of serotonin and higher melatonin, along with something to gain from staying indoors? What if instead of fighting against the low energy of the season we allowed ourselves to do something radically different? Rest and recover. Discover quieter practices and rejuvenate for spring.
These ideas aren’t popular in a society that urges us to be constantly sociable, happy, active, and productive. However, shifting your perspective slightly can make a big difference in overcoming the winter blues, and that’s what our new SAD workshop is all about (details below).
According to WholeHealth Chicago psychologist Meghan Roekle, PsyD, SAD may not be a disorder at all. Perhaps it’s just what we need, and right on time.
The psychology of SAD
Dr. Roekle writes: SAD is seen as a problem by mental health professionals, but it’s helpful to examine whether it might actually be a solution to a deeper issue. Let’s explore the idea of seasonal affective disorder. Disorder is simply a lack of order, which usually means predictable, clean, organized, linear. We imagine polished versions of ourselves, our relationships, and our lives, and that’s how we think things should be. These images are potent, and they can be helpful, but have you noticed that they don’t often align with reality?
The natural order of things usually has nothing to do with our priorities. Children don’t take off their muddy boots, your parents don’t understand you, weather doesn’t cooperate with big plans. The natural order of things is just as it is. The weather is deeply cold and the streets are icy and packed with cars. But isn’t that perfectly orderly in a winter way? Of course children don’t want to take off their boots–they want to have a snack and keep their feet warm. The problem isn’t muddy boots on the carpet, it’s our expectation versus nature’s idea of order.
Is SAD a true problem? Yes, if we view dis-order as a lack of alignment with the natural order. The talented practitioners at WHC offer a variety of remedies for this time of year, all designed to help our bodies, minds, and spirits fall into a natural (and thus free and open) order, supporting the body as it adjusts to changing temperatures, rhythms, and energies.
The question becomes, then, how can we align emotionally and physically with this season? Winter’s natural order is to slow down. The ground goes fallow in preparation for new growth in spring. What would that look like for us if we’re aligning with it? Perhaps a little quieter, slower, more reflective. Depression is common during this cold season, but I wonder how much of depression’s pull is the very natural desire to rest and permit a more authentic self to emerge.
Katie Oberlin, our Healing Touch practitioner, tells us that Healing Touch addresses all four primary aspects of our energy system: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
SAD might indicate an imbalance in the mental layer of the energy field caused by memories of SAD. Depression and irritability are often experienced at the emotional level. Spiritually, individuals feel less connected with their sense of purpose, often losing interest in activities that once provided a sense of meaning and joy. Katie uses her hands to assess the energy levels of her patients, and clears blockages to provide balance. Healing Touch aims to restore this balance.
Flower essences are collected from the blossoms of plants, infused with water in sun, and then further diluted and potentized. These essences are then used to treat physical and emotional imbalances and diseases. Seanna Tully, WholeHealth Chicago’s herbalist, recommends two flower essences for seasonal depression, Illumine and Grounding Green.
Illumine is a formula for depression, and one of its main ingredients is St. John’s wort, an herb commonly used to treat depression. Illumine transforms depression by integrating the light and dark aspects of a person. It’s especially helpful for those struggling to maintain their inner light in the darker, quieter days of the season.
Grounding Green is a flower essence that helps align our Body-Earth connection. Winter is especially challenging for extroverts and those who struggle with slowing down. Grounding Green supports an understanding of winter’s purpose and an appreciation of the quiet, restful months.
A SAD workshop
Even the mere suggestion of slowing down and self reflection can cause anxiety. Dr. Roekle writes, “We often fear we’ll turn into vegetable matter if we don’t push ourselves, trying to always match the energy of high summer, but in more than ten years of doing therapy I’ve never seen anyone who gave into the natural order within themselves stay on a couch forever. In fact, when we align with our natural rhythms we have more energy.”
As WholeHealth Chicago’s yoga therapist, I know that quieter practices such as meditation and self-reflection keep us actively rooted in the rhythm of the season. SAD-related depression and anxiety will be among the themes explored in my upcoming workshop series. Throughout winter I’ll be leading eight sessions from 6:30 to 8:30 pm each Wednesday between January 28 and March 18.
Each week, we’ll discuss a different aspect or side effect of winter and use guided meditations, breathing techniques, affirmations, and gentle yoga movements to turn inward, restore energy, and discover the purpose of winter in our lives. Join us to learn how to view winter from a slightly different perspective.
Whatever treatment works best for you–light box, herbals, Healing Touch, talk therapy, meditation, or a seasonal prescription–may this quiet time be a little more hopeful for you.