Winter Blues – coping with SAD
As the snow and ice take over, sculptor and writer, Sinnet Morch, describes her lifelong battle with SAD and her strategies for coping.
We all know that without the sun there would be no life on our planet. We also know that strong direct sunlight is life threatening and have learnt to smother ourselves in high factor sun lotion, defy Noel Coward and stay out in the midday sun. Not so well known and understood is the fact that months of no or weak sunlight is debilitating and is also, indirectly, a killer. It causes lethargy and varying degrees of depression. Deep depression can lead to suicidal despair. Sadly the figures for suicide in dark countries are very high.
The term SAD (Seasonally Affected Disorder) has been around for about 25 years – the condition itself since our beginnings. The people living across the lowlands and plains of Northern Europe have always battled the effects of sun deprivation. Russian and Scandinavian literature is preoccupied with the horror of 'the glums' and make them look like an honourable side-effect of genius. Recent genetic research has shown that they can be when depression is an illness – but SAD is not.
The pineal gland (an outgrowth from the brain) excretes the hormone melatonin. When we get high summer sun it is dormant. However, when the sun gets low on the horizon in the autumn it is activated. All vertebrates have this gland and the melatonin is the signal to hibernate or migrate. As we humans have jobs and families to look after we can do neither so we have to battle the disorder.
My own experience
I have suffered from SAD since I was a little girl in the 1930s. To the best of my knowledge there is no literature on SAD affecting children but there is no other explanation for my behaviour pattern at the time. I grew up on a flat Danish island – the climate was quite different from today's – where the land was covered in deep snow for three to four months of the year. Before I started school I was let out in the garden during the best hours of light from ten to one. I built an igloo and on the dark days pushed my sledge into it and curled up on it and slept. When the sky was clear and the sun visible, I placed my sledge in the middle of the lawn and lay on it staring into the pale world with wide-open eyes.
Many animals know they need extra minerals and seek out deposits in the ground and regularly have a healthy lick. I think my light seeking then was a variation of the same instinct.
The SAD effect starts with a feeling of lethargy, both mental and physical, probably in October. It's a bit like being wrapped tightly inside a thick woolly blanket. In the worst case one is almost paralysed. One also starts to sleep for far too many hours; I have been known to notch up fourteen. But it is important to remember that SAD is a condition which can be dealt with.
Apart from the lethargy I have had to cope with a problem which I do not think is mine alone; I suspect it is common. From November to spring I pick up any bug that is going and activate any 'live-in' viruses. My personal opinion, for what it is worth, is not that SAD weakens the immune system, but that the immune system has priorities and exhausts itself fighting SAD.
Anyhow, after a life time of the hu-ha, I have, almost, beaten it. Here is how it is done:
1. Force yourself out of bed and get to the bathroom somehow – crawl if you must – I have done.
2. Get under a shower, lukewarm water. Stay there until you begin to feel alive again (you will) and finish with at least 30 seconds of cold water. It can be done – promise.
3. Do NOT take a hot bath.
4. Exercise is a must. There is always some light at midday so get out for a brisk walk. Working out in the gym is also good. What 'location' is to property, 'exercise' is to SAD.
5. If you cannot go out for a walk or a work out, put our chair close to the window and, for at least half an hour, look directly out the window at whatever sun there is.
6. And don't forget: foods matters! With SAD goes a huge craving for carbohydrates. Don't give in to it. You will undo all your SAD-busting efforts and put on weight. This will depress you and make it even more difficult to get the exercise that you need.
7. Full spectrum light boxes are an enormous help and these days you can get ones small enough to take to work or with you if you travel. You can also get lights which sit on top of your computer or on your desk which means that you can absorb the beneficial rays while you are working.
8. Get rich! A sure cure for SAD is to spend the winter in the sun!
First published in 2004, updated 2010.