“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
That’s one of my favorite sayings because I love the joy that comes with the holiday season, like hot chocolate, cozy evenings at home, the glimmer of a Christmas tree or the timeless holiday songs playing on your radio.
And for those lucky enough to be in Hot Springs, we have things to look forward to, like the Tom Daniels Chili Cook-off, the lights decorating downtown and the wonderland that is Garvan Woodland Gardens. And — proven in recent years — snow is another thing we can almost guarantee looking forward to in Hot Springs. (In a reasonable amount, of course.)
However, the winter months aren’t all snow days and holiday tunes. The days are shorter and colder, the overcast is relentless, and the holidays don’t always bring a warm nostalgia with them. The wintertime blues are a widespread feeling in our society. And they usually start around when the time changes — as it did Saturday. We lose time in our days, and our bodies don’t always like that.
Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Guresky, with National Park Medical Center, has given a few ways to help combat what is typically known as “seasonal depression,” and medically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
“There are many types of depression, just like there might be many types of illnesses or diseases,” Guresky says. “Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder, is one, and it is associated with a decreased amount of sunlight.
“So obviously, the best thing to do is go somewhere tropical and enjoy yourself. It’s a snap. But not really something most people can do.”
The things that help with SAD are the same things Guresky says serve as good advice to every human being: “… eat right, get plenty of sleep (and) get some kind of exercise.”
Other actions for SAD-specific depression include exposing yourself to early morning sunlight, taking a small dose of melatonin at bedtime and fooling your body and brain with a therapy light.
“You can expose yourself to a type of light, a light that has a section of the spectrum that mimics natural sunlight and kind of fools your body into thinking that the day is longer,” Guresky said. “If you’re the sort of person that gets depressed in the winter and feel better when the days are long, well, that might be something that could help you with those long winter nights.”
One option for a therapy light can be purchased here.
A less expensive and locally available option includes purchasing a fluorescent light bulb with a color temperature between 5000-6500K that emits 10,000 lux of blue or white.
When using light therapy, expose yourself to the light for two hours in the morning. Don’t look into it; sit by it.
While SAD affects people across the board, women and young people are more susceptible.
“Depression is more common in the young,” Guresky said. “A lot of young people today have a crisis of meaning — they have no purpose, no direction. There may be, beyond the scope of what we’re talking about today, a bigger sort of cultural (and) societal issues that feed into this.”
He says feeling that lack of real purpose or meaning in life is one of the most significant contributing factors to any depression.
“What gives you meaning or purpose is different than me or someone else, so everyone needs to have meaning or purpose in their life,” Guresky said.
According to Psychology Today, a few ways to get in tune with that life purpose and meaning include:
Reconnecting with old passions
"This may be old hobbies — playing guitar, gardening, or raising chickens — or old dreams — traveling across the country, writing the great American novel."
Reaching out to others
"You’ve heard this a million times — if you want to help yourself help others. This works because it gets you out of your head and your narrow life and into the life of others; you can feel good because generally people appreciate what you do and appreciation gives you a sense of value and making a difference however small."
Getting out of your head and into your gut
"If you are wired to be heavily driven by shoulds, you want to start rewiring your brain to pay attention to and use your emotions as information. All those shoulds can leave you feeling anxious, confused, guilty, whereas your emotions are your source of passion, desire, and energy. Start by paying attention to those slightest wisps of feeling that tell you what you want and don’t want. Once you notice them, do something concrete with them — again, act. What you do is less important than the doing. That is how you learn to trust your emotions and use them to guide you, and how you rewire your brain."
Exploring and experimenting
"You can’t figure out your sense of purpose by sitting on the couch and mulling it over. Life is a process of elimination. You need to explore and experiment and try things and see what sticks, what works, what doesn’t. You want to shut down that critical voice that tells you that you have to do it right or that it is the best fit. Instead, focus on doing different, experiment with being bold, and taking acceptable risks."
If having tried behavioral and lifestyle changes, and it’s not helped combat SAD (or any kind of depression), Guresky says you should be embarrassed to ask someone for help.
“Start with your family doctor,” he said. “You don’t need to run, see a psychiatrist, and you certainly don’t need to run go be put on *medication. But there are ways to help you if you’ve tried lifestyle changes and it just hasn’t worked, and the symptoms are interfering with your ability to function socially and occupationally.”