Ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder? It sneaks in during the winter months and afflicts 5% to 20% of Americans, with varying degrees of intensity. MKs are not impervious to the darkening, and I believe their cross-cultural uniqueness might make them more prone to it. I’ve seen so many of them hit the proverbial wall in January and February, when darker days conjure up the darker specters of loss and lostness they can usually subdue with busyness, friendship and adventure.
Though this article is written with them in mind, its content will apply to anyone who struggles with the seasonal doldrums. I’m also including suggestions in red for those who love S.A.D.-sufferers and want to help them through the murky months.
Have you noticed the darkening in recent weeks in someone you love or in yourself? A lethargy that makes you want to withdraw and hibernate while you wait for an invisible oppressive cloud to lift? Symptoms can include:
- Decreased levels of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increase in appetite
- Increased desire to be alone
- Increased need for sleep
- Weight gain (which makes me wonder if I may have chronic SAD!)
Love a S.A.D. sufferer? Monitor their behavior and their absences. If you haven’t seen or heard from them in a while, inquire as to their state of mind. Hear their responses, but also gauge their body-language and read between the lines. Look for deep-rooted lethargy and a refusal to engage.
If you think you might be affected by S.A.D. and your mild symptoms seem to be limited in time to the darker months of the year, would you consider trying a cocktail of the following mood-enhancing habits? And if you know someone who seems to be struggling along these lines, would you encourage them (arm-twist them?) into participating?
1. Get Social. You may not feel like seeing people or engaging in activities that seem trivial or draining. Force yourself into those situations anyway! Connection to others is a lifeline that keeps us from sinking deeper, even if it’s casual contact. MKs often turn their noses up at “trivial” activities…but human contact in any form is beneficial for those who suffer from S.A.D. Take a deep breath and jump in. Then jump in again. Find the courage to initiate if you need to. Go sit in your suite-mates’ room for a few minutes. Plan to eat your meals at the same time as your friends do. Go on a Starbucks run. Play a game of Fussball even though it’s the last thing you feel like doing. Repeated forays into social situations will pay off.
Love a S.A.D. sufferer? Be the instigator of social activities, be gently persistent and don’t take “no” for an answer. Start with brief activities that aren’t too strenuous and extend them over time.
2. Take care of yourself.
Are you eating healthily? (So-called “comfort foods” can actually slow down your metabolism and cognitive skills—balance them with healthier foods that promote activity and alertness.) Are you getting your heart-rate up every day for at least 1/2 hour? Are you sleeping long enough at night and avoiding sleeping during the day? Use your day-planner to establish an eating and action plan. Vegetables? Check. Take stairs instead of elevator? Check. (Cuss while swallowing broccoli and sweating to the fifth floor? Check!)
Love a S.A.D. sufferer? Invite them over for a healthy meal. Throw down a friendly challenge. (One week of eating well? One month of consistent exercise together?)
3. Develop or renew an interest in something!
Sometimes, all it takes is forcing a reconnection with things you used to love doing/experiencing. Pick up your guitar and play for a while. Find that old sketchpad and draw something that inspires you. Make an online scrapbook. Take your camera out for a winter walk and try to find the beauty surrounding you. Read a book just for the fun of it. Better yet…write one! Start a new workout regimen. Putter around in a car engine. Carve something out of a chunk of wood. Revive that part of you that used to enjoy doing and experiencing stuff. Rediscover that passion. It will jump-start your brain!
Love a S.A.D. sufferer? Try to remember what used to “get their juices flowing” and coax them back into that activity, art or craft.
4. Tell yourself the truth.
When our minds succumb to the midwinter glooms, our ability to accurately evaluate ourselves and our circumstances gets severely restricted. We begin to believe depression-induced generalizations like “No one wants to be around me,” “I’ll never belong here,” “There’s nothing in my future to look forward to,” “God is nowhere in sight.” One of the simplest ways to bring perspective into those statements is to preface them with “I feel” and end them with “right now.”
“I feel like no one wants to be around me right now.”
“I feel like I don’t belong here right now.”
“I feel like God is nowhere in sight right now.”
“I feel” takes the adamancy out of the statement. It reaffirms that this current state of mind might have more to do with out-of-balance emotions than with reality. “Right now” gives the statement a more temporary connotation. Are the feelings real? Absolutely. But is there a possibility they’ll pass? ABSOLUTELY!
Telling ourselves the truth may seem like a futile approach to defusing something as potent as depression, but there is power in the words we use to tell ourselves about our own lives, and the practice of using simple phrases like “I feel” and “right now” can debunk the instinctive lies we tend to believe without question. But they need to be repeated…and repeated…and repeated as long as the S.A.D. lasts.
Love a S.A.D. sufferer? Ask them how they feel. Listen first. Then ask more questions and listen again. Don’t contradict. And when the time is right, lavish them with hope. “I know that’s how you FEEL. But believe me when I tell you that this may just be a FOR NOW thing. Let’s see what we can do together to try to dispel some of this sadness.”
5. Be grateful.
Oh—I know you’ve heard that line before if you’ve read this blog with any amount of frequency! There is no greater compliment than being told to stop harping on gratitude. Through the worst life has thrown at me, and aside from God’s presence (felt and sometimes unfelt), gratitude has been the greatest tool in my survival arsenal. It works for S.A.D. too.
Get a notebook you keep next to your bed and don’t turn off the light at night before you’ve written down a minimum of three things you’ve been grateful for that day. It seems as trivial as saying “I feel” and “for now,” but there is something in the way our spirits are wired that makes them respond powerfully to the act of gratitude. Not the feeling. The deliberate act of digging for the good in life and acknowledging it. It’s a glimmer of light in a sea of turmoil. Be consciously grateful for what did and didn’t happen. “I’m grateful that Amy smiled at me when I got to class.” “I’m grateful that I didn’t hurt myself any worse when I fell on the ice.” Once again, depression is characterized by the absence of perspective, and habits like gratitude serve to slowly restore it.
Love a S.A.D. sufferer? You can subtly (SUBTLY!) point out the good things happening in their lives—what they’ve enjoyed and what they’ve avoided. But you can also give them reasons to be grateful. Words of affirmation. Incentive to get up and get out. Random acts of kindness. You can be a part of the brightening.
6. Go into the light!
And by that, I mean that if there is a ray of light touching down anywhere near you, throw on a jacket and go stand in it! There’s no alternative to the benefits of soaking up some sun. Just trust me and do it…
Please note: Seasonal Affective Disorder can be more than merely a response to weather patterns and thermometer readings. If one of its components is emotional pain and injury, those must be acknowledged and treated appropriately by trained professionals.
If your feelings of depression are constant, disabling and/or causing you (even temporarily) to consider ending your life, seek medical help immediately.
It’s too easy for us to dismiss danger by finding ways to minimize it. If your sadness is disrupting your life, hobbling your ability to sleep, think and/or socialize, and if you’re having any thoughts of self-inflicted harm, stop browsing the internet for palatable labels and get yourself to a doctor…or ask a trusted friend to get you to the help you need.