Weathering Depression: Surviving the S.A.D. Blues

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Weathering Depression: Surviving the S.A.D. Blues

When I was growing up in Jamaica I never understood why white people on TV talked so much about the bloody weather. Little old ladies exclaimed to other little old ladies, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” and I was perplexed by the question. Outside my window the bright, hot sun shone everyday and all day long, no matter what time of the year it was. When it rained, it did so for only a few warm minutes. Then the sky was immediately blue again.

My British pen pal wrote pages and pages about the cloudy London sky. I read the perfect penmanship and was bored beyond measure. I responded in tedious kind about the sunny skies in Montego Bay, all the while wondering why the strange girl was so interested in matters as mundane as clouds.

Then I moved to New York City and the weather report became my lifeline as I dressed for the day. There is nothing to describe the journey from the tropics, where we never think about the weather except to complain that it is hotter than usual, to a place that freezes over for months at a time every year. And for years I couldn’t understand why every September I would fall into an inexplicable, unshakable depression, why verses and verses of tragic, dark (badly written) poems filled my journals, why I wouldn’t answer my phone, or go outside, or eat very much. Every time the sun went away I wanted crawl under my covers and go to sleep forever. And for months I had minimal contact with the world beyond my apartment, and I became tacit and sharp with those close to me. Many of my relationships ended under the strain.

For half a decade, periodically and sporadically I was a wreck and I had no idea why. One week, in the year I turned 30, it rained for days and days running in New York. The skies remained black from dawn to dawn. I almost slit my wrists. The only thing that kept the razor from my skin was worrying about who would fine me and how it would affect them. And suddenly, it got warm, and the urge to harm myself disappeared.

I decided that it was time have a closer look at what was happening to me. Like any good self-indulgent writer, I started reading the journals I had kept over the years. It took me two journals to discover that though my bouts of sadness were often informed by difficult events in my life, they were completely at the mercy of the weather. If something slightly disappointing happened in the spring, I could brush it off as unimportant and easily bounce back from the disappointment. But if the same thing happened in the fall, it would push me down into a pit of sorrow.

Every fall, for the first five years I lived in New York, this pattern of behavior ensued. As soon as it got cool, I started pulling into myself. The colder it got, the more intractably depressed I became. I talked to friends about the phenomenon and found that many immigrants from the continent of Africa, from all the different islands of the Caribbean, even people from The South and California had similar tales of the cold-weather blues.

And when I googled it, I found a term, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a disease where people who experience normal mental health during the rest of the year become depressed in the wintertime. It’s some kind of negative response to the lack of sunshine and warmth. I suppose there are varying degrees of it, and I don’t imagine I had the worst version of it. Because as soon as I knew what was happening to me I felt better.



Comments [109]

CA_Medicine_Woman's picture

Okay, here we go...

I've been watching the discussion on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), aka Seasonal Depression.  This is an area I'm a bit of an expert in, both having patients with SAD (and major depression, or MD), and having lived with major depression the majority of my life.  Since I have severe allergies or other severe side effects to all anti-depressants, I have had to learn some other ways of dealing with depression.

About 6% of women, and less than 1% of men, are forced to deal with SAD every year.  The further away from the Equator you live in the cold weather season, the more likely you are to experience SAD, and the more severe symptoms can be.  Those symptoms may include depression, fatigue, low self-esteem, inability to make decisions, or recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.  There is also a shift in dietary habits, usually towards cravings for sweets, high carb foods, and alcohol.  Persons with SAD tend to be more irritable, argumentative, withdraw from others, and sleep more than usual.

The differences between SAD and MD is one of both severity and time.  SAD tends to mostly be non-severe (although it can become severe to life threatening), while MD is present at all times, and left untreated usually results in suicide or attempts at suicide.  Individuals with SAD tend to follow a set cycle, meaning if it usually hits you the first week of November and ends around the start of March, that's when it will likely hit you every year.

For the most part, SAD usually doesn't require medical intervention, but instead requires some alterations in diet and behavior patterns.  That's a pretty tall order for most, given that SAD usually starts when the most counterproductive foods are widely available, and the booze flows freely.  The weather turns cold and damp, so we don't get outside as much, and begin to isolate ourselves.  Add to that stresses associated with the "holiday season," such as family, work, and suddenly increased financial pressures, and, well, you get the picture by now.

This is how I deal with my depression, which has worked well with the patients I've worked with who have SAD (not to mention for me as well, lol).

Diet:  Don't give in to the sugar/carb/alcohol cravings.  The first two only have a temporary effect at making you feel better (until the food is digested), and alcohol is actually a depressant.  I will assume most here would rather kiss George Bush with full tongue rather than take a teaspoon a day of Cod Liver Oil, but that is considered the best source of Vitamin D.  You need to check, however, that the Vitamin D wasn't actually removed, which some less than reputable companies have been doing lately.  

If the stuff makes you gag, then there is always cooked seafood (salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, specifically).  I think we all know about milk fortified with Vitamin D, but this is synthesized Vitamin D, and is not always a good choice for most.  There are also healthy breakfast cereals that are likewise fortified with Vitamin D, but again it may be organic or synthesized.

A Vitamin D supplement is useful in addition to the foods I mentioned above.  However, stick to organic sources, rather than synthesized supplements, whenever possible, for better results.

But Vitamin D alone is not the only important aspect of diet.  This time of the year, many of us tend to eat a lot of junk foods, which are low in nutrition, and high in processed sugars.  It's important in colder weather to keep a proper balance of fat, protein, and natural sugars (carbs, for the most part).  Usually, your caloric intake should equal about one third of each, keeping in mind the following: fat is 9 calories per gram, sugar and protein are 3 calories per gram each.  BTW, alcohol, a harmful form of sugar for those with SAD or MD, is 9 calories per gram.  Vitamin E intake should be the same year round, but a small increase in Vitamin C and the various B vitamins also helps (the former for fighting off colds, the latter for dealing with stress).  Self-prepared, home cooked meals are the best sources, and the fat should come equally from veggies and meats.

Exercise:  WIth the tendency to stay indoors in the winter months, most of us neglect exercise.  However, exercise has proven invaluable to those with SAD and MD alike, as it increases energy levels, not to mention gives you something to mentally focus on.  A regular exercise routine, usually at least 30-60 minutes daily, can work marvels.  Some have said it also increases Vitamin D production if you exercise outdoors, but this only works if you expose your skin to the available sunlight, not always advised in northern climates in the winter.  What exercise does do is cause your body to actually use the Vitamin D you are getting to utilize your calcium intake, converting it into stronger bone.  It also increases blood flow, and by default oxygen, to your brain, telling it now is the time for more energy, not for rest.  Exercise also burns fat, which increases your metabolism, and hence energy levels.

Rest:  It is very important, particularly in the winter, to make sure you are getting enough sleep, and regularly, on a set schedule.  Parties at the office, or with friends and family, can and often do run into the wee hours, and then you get a few hours sleep and it's back to work.  You eventually run into a sleep deficit, which makes depression a whole lot worse.  At the same time, getting too much sleep can result in actually feeling depressed and run-down as well, sometimes as bad as a mild hangover feels.  Set a specific time for sleep, and time for awakening, and stick to it.  If you need to hit the snooze bar on your alarm clock, then you're not allowing enough sleep to be properly rested.  Generally, whatever sleep time you required during the summer should work just fine in the winter for most.

Be Active, Don't Isolate:  Simply put, get out and do things, like visit with friends, go bowling, catch a movie, etc, and get others to join in.  SAD and MD create a vicious cycle of isolation and inactivity that must be broken.  Human beings are very social creatures by nature, and need to feel purpose and acceptance.  If you're feeling too depressed to get out and about, that's when you need to the most.  Do, however, try to avoid the bar and club scenes, or at least avoid drinking alcohol.  Most talented bartenders have quite a list of non-alcoholic options that are tasty.  If you're the "Designated Driver," some bars will make them at a discount for you, and a few will even give them to you for free.

Avoid Unnecessary Stress:  Yeah, I know, what are the holidays for if not to test your ability to refrain from strangling someone who desperately deserves it, especially a family member?  The malls and stores are crowded, people are rude to each other, and your parents want you home, but could your "special friend" go to their own parents this year, etc.  Meanwhile, you have to fight bumper to bumper traffic to get here and there, work harder to pay for everything you just bought for those stressing you out, etc.  Meanwhile, the cat just hacked up something unidentifiable and colorful on your pillow, and your partner burnt boiling water.

I can't tell you how to deal with family, but I can recommend a good book that will give you a different perspective: How to be a Jewish Mother by Dan Greenburg (ISBN-13: 978-0843100204).  Try to avoid laughing out loud at the family gatherings, however, when comparing what Greenburg writes to your own family, or you'll have to explain.  The point is to deflect the stress into something humorous.

Dealing with the boss, however, is easy.  At my company, we have a simple motto: People always rise to their level of incompetence.  Don't volunteer anything, especially information.  If you think you will be done with something earlier than the boss expects it, then slow down.  Working harder for less is one of the leading causes of stress related depression and anxiety.  The harder you work, the more your boss will expect in the future.

As for rude people on the roads and in the stores, well, ignore them.  You don't know them, they don't know you, so how worth it is it to you to let their behavior get you stressed out?  IF what they are doing goes beyond rudeness and into bullying or other threatening behavior, speak to the customer service manager, or a nearby security guard.  More than likely at that point, you won't be the first one who pointed the individual out.  To avoid such people to begin with, I recommend running routine errands or shopping during off-peak times, say on a Tuesday afternoon or Sunday morning.  You can also shop the smaller, more local businesses, which tend to not attract the crazies the way WalMart and KMart do.

If Nothing Works:  Well, then it is time to pay a visit to your family doctor.  It might be a simple matter of tweaking your diet or exercise plan, or maybe you need a medication or supplement to control your stress, anxiety, or depression..  St John's Wort is okay, but there are enough contraindications and negative drug interactions that you should discuss this with your doctor first.  This one is the ONLY one I'm not allergic to, but it interferes with certain medicines I take, so I can't take it.

Okay, now a legal clarification:  I am not giving medical advice, I am telling you what works for me, and for others I have personally witnessed.  As with any diet, exercise, or medications, you should talk to a doctor first.  To avoid the tendency to put patients on Prozac, I suggest telling them you have zero prescription coverage and little money for such from the start.  That will keep things on a homeopathic level as long as practical.

If you are, however, feeling like you may hurt yourself or others, you should talk to someone you trust, someone who will act on your behalf and do what is best for you, and that you will recognize is doing so and is going to be there for you.  If things are really getting desperate, call for help.  I know Grace had instituted an emergency list of referrals at "that other site," but I think this time of the year might be a good time for that to be revived here at VP.

Anyway, be safe and good to each other, and enjoy the holidays.

yonks's picture

Thanks for the complete file.

Thanks for the complete file. Smile

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Robin Rigby's picture

Yonks. I love you! 

Yonks. I love you! 

yonks's picture

i don't know what i'v made to

Shy i don't know what i'v made to deserve that.

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Rusty's picture

SoCal

I'm in the Inland Empire on the edge of the desert about 1/2 way between LA and San Diego. It gets pretty hot during the summer with weeks of 110+ heat, but Thanksgiving Week and it's in the 80's and I'm still in shorts and a t-shirt. Worth it.

"When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." ~ Pollyanna

yonks's picture

Oh stop that!

"I'm still in shorts and a t-shirt"

"my weather is warmer than yours giggle giggle"

I wonder why they haven't separate Canada/USA on est/west line instead of north/south. Sigh.

 

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Rusty's picture

But, but

Well, we do have to worry about earthquakes so it probably balances out. I grew up in Chicago and I remember what that wind feels like whipping off Lake Michigan. I admit to wearing shorts long past when the native Californians scurry into their jeans and gloves.

"When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." ~ Pollyanna

ksedivec's picture

Chicago

I was born and raised in the northwest Chicago 'burbs and lived in the city as an adult for 7 years.  Last fall I moved to NY and laughed when people complained about the 20 degree lows!  In Chicago, we're used to that wind chill factor making sub zero temps feel like 20 BELOW. Now, I completely agree that SAD is awful and it messes with my bipolar disorder too.  But I considered last winter pleasantly mild. (despite the low numbers and slow response of snow trucks here).

"Music is the medicine of a troubled mind." -- Walter Haddon

Robin Rigby's picture

I have felt exactly ONE

I have felt exactly ONE earthquake since I moved here 7 years ago.  I've looked at the US Geological Survey maps and they happen all day long, several times per day but that one made me pause and ask what it was.  I was at the office and my monitor and the cubicle walls all shook.  

Rusty's picture

shake, rattle, and roll

I think the scariest for me was the Landers /  Big Bears quakes in 92. They were within a couple hours of each other. Landers was a rolling quake that went on forever. The Northridge quake a couple of years later was more of a sharp jolt. Over 70  people died in that one.

"When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." ~ Pollyanna

yonks's picture

It must be really stressful

It must be really stressful

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Rusty's picture

use to be

I don't really think about it that much now. But when I first moved to California I remember being in different buildings or areas and thinking, "This would be a really bad place to be in an earthquake." The Pirates of the Caribbean is an underground attraction at Disneyland. Worrying about earthquakes totally ruined the Happiest Place on Earth for me and so I decided to let it go.

"When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." ~ Pollyanna

Robin Rigby's picture

Because those early Canadians

Because those early Canadians weren't smart enough to think of that?  Haha.  Just kidding.

Conlite's picture

Too busy chasing beaver. 

Too busy chasing beaver.  Really.

Not2Taem's picture

She-he-he-he

Snorffle!

Robin Rigby's picture

Hehehe!

Hehehe!

yonks's picture

Very funny

Very funny Stare

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Robin Rigby's picture

 It is an interesting

Smile  It is an interesting question.  Eastern Canada and Eastern USA were initially settled by white folks around the same time.  Maybe we just beat your ancestors to the west coast.  Being Americans you know we have to do everything bigger and faster.  

yonks's picture

"Being Americans you know we

"Being Americans you know we have to do everything bigger and faster."

Honey, flush the toilet, i want to take a whirlpool. hehe

Tel me Robin, how is it for you to live under boi-cott?

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Robin Rigby's picture

It doesn't bother me at all,

It doesn't bother me at all, Yonks. I love women of all types, so if there is a dearth of butch/femme dykes I haven't noticed. Plus I frequently get hit on by femmes who perceive me as a big, strong butch. My perception is the opposite of Julia's since I'm not butch and have trouble finding women who are willing to accept me as not identifying with that dynamic.

yonks's picture

"I frequently get hit on by

"I frequently get hit on by femmes who perceive me as a big, strong butch"

That's was exactly how i perceived you, thanks for the clarification. I think its sucks when the impression you leave doesn't match to your inner being.

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Not2Taem's picture

Her nic name is fluffy.

*ducking and running*

Really fast. In an evasive pattern. For a long time!

Evil

Robin Rigby's picture

FLUFFY?!

You'd better run! Smile

Not2Taem's picture

Welcome home.

When you called and I realized you hadn't seen it, I almost died trying to sound nonchalant. Laughing out loud

Robin Rigby's picture

Is that what all that heavy

Is that what all that heavy breathing was about?

Not2Taem's picture

Sorry to dash your hopes.

But yes, it was. 

Julia Watson's picture

If we were the 70 little

If we were the 70 little dwarves and Rigby is "Fluffy" I guess that makes you "Floozy." Ha! Floozy and Fluffy. The perv twins.

yonks's picture

If we were the 70 little

If we were the 70 little dwarf, who would be wite snow?

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Robin Rigby's picture

I think Grace would have to

I think Grace would have to be Snow White.  Question is, who would be the evil witch?

Not2Taem's picture

Not seein' it.

Grumpy: Ask her who she is, and what she's doing here!

 Doc: Ah, yes. What are you, and who are you doing here?

 

Robin Rigby's picture

Hey, B calls me by my last

Hey, B calls me by my last name because she knows 3 Robins but since when do you?  

Not2Taem's picture

F & F TFF

F & F

TFF

yonks's picture

Someone shout: "gold!" and

Someone shout: "gold!" and they all jump in west coast as crabs on genitalia. Big smile

PS i just play silly

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Robin Rigby's picture

Now THAT'S an image!

Now THAT'S an image!

Conlite's picture

I think everyone up north

I think everyone up north here probably has SAD.  We just call it winter cabin fever.  The short winter daylength leads to a grouchy hibernation mentality unless you party a lot or do winter sports in a big way.  We catch up in the summer though, when long daylength makes us all sleepless and hyperactive.

To combat this, my sister does vitamin D supplements.  I prefer to go jogging, if its not snowing too hard or too cold.  (If it gets much below zero farenheit it is hard to breathe properly while exercising because the air is so dry.)

Robin Rigby's picture

"If it gets much below zero

"If it gets much below zero farenheit it is hard to breathe properly while exercising because the air is so dry." 

If it gets much near zero it's hard to even think of exercising.  Or even breathing.  You're a better woman than I if you can go jogging, let alone jogging in the snow.  Brrrr...

Conlite's picture

Its a question of

Its a question of acclimatisation - I would probably curl up and wilt from heat exhaustion if exposed to California weather!

yonks's picture

Its true, since i work with

Its true, since i work with fire, i'm surprisingly tolerant on warm weather.

-Do not follow me, I'M LOST-

Robin Rigby's picture

Depends what part of CA.  I'm

Depends what part of CA.  I'm in the southernmost part (as you know) with an expected low of 49 tonight and a high of 73 today.  Not exactly tropical.  Most people who don't live here don't know that the ocean temps are quite chilly which keeps the temps moderate in spite of the relentless sunshine.  Of course that same relentless sunshine keeps the SAD away.  

Conlite's picture

Yeah I heard that Cali isn't

Yeah I heard that Cali isn't all scorchy desert, but "moderate" is different up here.  When the temp gets up to the 40s in spring, we all run around in t-shirts raving about how warm it is.  73 would have me sweating and gasping for sure if I tried to run around at all!

(But, no, we really don't live in igloos.....Smile )

Robin Rigby's picture

Here when the temps get into

Here when the temps get into the 60's everyone puts on Uggs and down coats and bitches about how cold it is.  I live in shorts and tees when I'm not at work.  

Tex's picture

You're right...

there are a couple of months in TX where you can't get out and do much cause it's so freaking hot...same with the too cold! We've all got our coping months...

Twitter Time @kdhales

Not2Taem's picture

Rather be cold than hot

I've been here a couple of decades now and still hate anything over 85. In MA we would get a week or 2 in the 90's each year, but we were close enough to the ocean to get the breeze. Here it is hot and still and with the droughts, everything starts to smell like urine to boot.

With the cold you just jump into a nice warm bath and then bundle on a cuddly sweater, or whoever.  Wink

Tex's picture

Can't wait to snoeshoe...

I love it...oh, and sorry for the jump in to the convo

Twitter Time @kdhales

Not2Taem's picture

X-country?

Do you ski? For me, ME is all about getting out on a nice quiet flat track and relaxing into the rhythm.

Conlite's picture

S'fine!

S'fine! Smile

Joanne Robertson's picture

I too, am afflicted with the SAD

I've found St. John's Wort (vitamins) work for me, especially during the dark patch of winter and gardening - even for half an hour to soak in some rays.

Thankfully it's summer here in NZ and daylight savings has kicked in ... I feel my mood/vibe completely change in Oct/Nov.

NZ weather is something to be managed Tongue

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qUNEnVTanY

Julia Watson's picture

The best natural supplement

The best natural supplement I've used for depression is a phytoplankton tonic called FrequenSea. It's about $40 a bottle, which is pricey, but I've had pretty great results with the stuff.

MacLass_19's picture

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can be treated with a casual walk outdoors. 20-30 minutes on a cloudy day will effectively allow you to absorb about 60% of the vitamin D that we need on a daily basis.

The sun doesn't have to be shinning brightly to receive the benefits from Ultraviolet (UV) rays. The sunlight triggers vitamin D synthesis in the skin. 

Even though I'm in So. California, here at the beach it can be overcast for days. So, spending time outdoors is a very good thing...

Smile

*Staceyann, I love how you express yourself*

chelilektra's picture

And this is why...

I moved to Los Angeles and gave up my sex life. Wink

________________________________________________________

"Bitch, what you don't know about me is that I can just about fit in the Grand fucking Canyon. Did you know that I always wanted to be a dancer in Vegas?" Silent Bob