Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.
I know, I know. You’re tired of this cold weather, the cloudy skies, the miserable commute. You feel shut-up, unable to do your usual activities, reluctant to face the bitter cold even to fetch a gallon of milk or a cup of hot coffee.
This is typical winter weather in our region, and with the end of the holiday season it is literally darker than ever. This is the time of year when some of us really get down in the dumps. Some of us even get depressed.
One of the downsides of the stigma surrounding mental illness is that we tend to downplay the role of emotions in our health. We discount them as irrational or meaningless. But emotions can serve as valuable indicators. If they are causing a disruption to our lives, we may need to investigate them as well as what is happening in our bodies. If you are struggling to get through the day, feeling tired and irritable, not sleeping well, having trouble concentrating, experiencing hopelessness and avoiding people, you may be dealing with more than a simple mood swing. You may have a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D.
Having lived here far above the equator for about 90% of my life, I am statistically more likely to be affected by S.A.D. than someone living in Florida. But is this a sign that I am a wimp? Am I just not cut out for the inconvenience and unpleasantness of our harsh winters?
Whether you identify with my plight or feel inclined to shake your head in pity or disgust, I am pleased to point out that science is here to defend me and all of us battling S.A.D. Research shows that the primary culprits behind moodiness this time of year is lack of sunlight and a disruption of circadian rhythms, and there are tangible physical processes involved that affect both our behavior and our hormones.
First, it is important to understand what a circadian rhythm is. It’s a process that the body goes through along a 24-hour cycle and it can be reset by an external influence. The sleep cycle is an example of a circadian rhythm which is influenced by light levels. When darkness is detected, the hormone melatonin is secreted from a gland in our brain. Melatonin modulates sleep patterns according to circadian and seasonal rhythms. More melatonin is secreted as darkness increases, so as we are experiencing some of the darkest days of the year our levels of melatonin are changing. Our bodies may produce it either earlier or later in the day, causing unusual shifts in our mood.
There is a complex chain of events that can result in undesirable levels of melatonin. As scientists begin to understand the process, they are gaining insight into how to adjust these levels to help people suffering from S.A.D., major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.
While the future looks promising, there are also many options available right now for those suffering from S.A.D. For example, light therapy is effective for 50 to 60 percent of people. You can try to soak up as much natural sunlight as possible by getting on a consistent sleep schedule and getting up early to catch the morning rays. A broad spectrum light box can be used as well. For faster results, aerobic exercise is recommended. A brisk walk outside is especially helpful, as it increases exposure to sunlight while improving mood and reducing stress.
Diet also plays a role. You may be craving carbohydrates, but sugary foods only cause a temporary energy spike followed by a crash. To avoid this rollercoaster in your mood, satisfy your craving with complex carbohydrates like rice or potatoes or healthy simple carbs like fruits.
Also, it is important not to isolate yourself, as tempting as that can be when your mood is low. Staying active and interacting with people will boost your mood.
Finally, if you suspect that professional help is needed, therapy and medications can be very effective. These are available by talking to your doctor.
The overall message, beyond the importance of treating mood disorders like the winter blues, is that to maintain wellness we must consider our bodies and our minds. If we want to live life to its fullest, we cannot afford to allow fear and stigma of mental health issues to prevent us from taking care of all aspects of our health, including our mysterious moods.
Mind Matters is a regular column of Greater Niagara Newspapers. The above article was published on January 18, 2015 in the Niagara Gazette, Lockport Union-Sun Journal and Tonawanda News.
Pamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.