Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Winter Blues

(photo by Jane Leder)

As of last evening, we'd had exactly 11 minutes of sunshine in the month of February. Eleven precious minutes! That's just about enough time to rifle through my purse, dig out my sunglasses, clean off the lipstick smudges, and walk out the door. By then, the clouds that had so mercifully parted converge in a devious plot to once again eclipse the sun.

Ever since my mid-thirties, I've suffered a mild case of Seasonal Affective Depression, or SAD. Come about November, my energy level drops, I usually gain weight, I get tired more easily, and, in general, I'm not my usual bubbly, optimistic, charming self.

I'm not alone: some 10 million Americans - 70 to 80 percent of them women - suffer from SAD. An even larger number sing the "winter blues." Scientists aren't exactly sure what causes SAD, but they have some good guesses. One theory holds that our biological clocks, regulators of mood, sleep, and hormones, slow down because there is less sunlight. Another theory is that the brain chemicals that transmit information between nerves may be altered. Some of those "happy" chemicals like serotonin aren't as readily available, and those of us who are affected can get pretty cranky.

Back in the day, I tried light therapy to combat the symptoms of SAD. I sat in front of a big light box that boasted white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen to block out ultraviolet rays. The thing worked for a time but, ultimately, the only effective treatment was a trip to Florida.

The larger light boxes are not portable and force the user to sit in one place for up to 30 minutes. I got even moodier, having lost my mobility. So when my uncle sent me a photo of a new device that, for all practical purposes, looked like a mini-miner's helmet with one of those super duper special lights, I gave the light box to my son and started wearing the helmet. I loved that I could do just about anything while wearing it except take a shower or drive a car but, in the end, it didn't make much difference in how I felt.

For a few winters, I just up and left - first to Florida, then to California. But my husband felt abandoned and, with pressure to stay home, my travels to warmer climes came to an abrupt end. Then one fall afternoon - with the days noticeably shorter and my fears of yet another winter more and more real - I decided to try an anti-depressant through the winter months. As I recall, that winter was uncharacteristically sunny, so I never knew whether it was the medication or the sunshine that softened the blow. Whatever it was, it worked. Not willing to trust Mother Nature (with good reason after the 11 minutes of sun this month), I rely on the medication.

If you're one of the millions who, like me, wishes that winter lasted about 4 weeks - Global Warming may ultimately grant us that wish - there are some steps you can take to survive the season's short, often dark days:
  • Spend time outside every day, even if it's cold and cloudy. It is brighter outdoors than inside, and the light and fresh air can boost your mood.
  • Exercise and wake up all those "happy" brain chemicals.
  • Consider a light box (you should consult with a physician first) or change the light bulbs in your home to full spectrum lights that simulate natural light.
  • Take out photos of your garden and begin to plan changes for the spring.
  • Save your money and take a trip to sunnier climes.
  • If things get really bad, think about moving. Given the low interest rates and disaster in the real estate market, this is a good time to make a great deal.

Light Bulbs

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