The Temptations’ song “My Girl” credited being in love with chasing away the clouds. Love certainly helps, but as the winter drags on and rain falls and heavy overcast holds steady for long periods here in the Pacific Northwest, some of us are fantasizing about a beach vacation in a warm place.
Researchers have been looking at the brain’s response to darkness and light in order to understand Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The brain releases melatonin when our eyes detect darkness, and this regulates our sleep cycles. In response to light, melatonin production subsides and a happier hormone, serotonin, takes charge to make us feel more energized, awake, and cheerful. The word serotonin is rooted in serum + tonic, so it’s our body’s own natural feel-good medicine. The word melatonin stems from mel (black) tonic, for darkness.
A 2008 European study looked at the impact of six different daily weather factors—temperature, sunlight, wind, precipitation, air pressure, and length of day—on more than 1,200 subjects, most of them women. Contrary to many previous studies that correlated a low mood with limited exposure to sunshine and high humidity, this study concluded that the average effect of “good” weather on positive mood was minimal. That is, windy, cold, dark days appeared to have only a slight negative effect on mood, with fatigue and sluggishness being the main complaints.
That said, the researchers concluded finally that “people differ in their sensitivity to daily weather changes.” Some of us are simply more vulnerable to weather changes than others. It’s not a character flaw; it has more to do with our personal chemistry.
And that said, we have the power to take steps to change our reactions to the weather. Ani Kalayjian, Ed.D., R.N., a professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York, advises that we “can and should take proactive steps to strengthen the [brain’s] system against weather-driven mood changes.”
We can’t change the weather, or order the sun to appear, but we can set the best possible stage for breaking through an emotional overcast when it happens. “Feelings are transient,” says Dr. Kalayjian. “We can change them, transform them into positive.”All the classic recommendations for combating the winter blues apply—getting regular exercise, eating good food, moderating alcohol intake, listening to up-tempo music, meditating, getting outside often—and there are other tricks as well:
—Paring down belongings to stimulate a lighter, less burdened feeling.
—Exercising your imagination and creativity: painting, drawing, doodling, photographing, sewing, knitting, writing, dancing, composing music, and so on. Better yet, do it with others.
–Investing in a “dawn simulator” light or alarm clock that gradually lightens your bedroom from dawn to full daylight (one study showed an 83% better response when compared with other bright light therapy).
—Making your bed with clean sheets, or if it’s in the budget, buy new ones in a bright color you’ve never tried before. Fluff the pillows, vacuum thoroughly, wipe down surfaces, get rid of clothes you don’t wear, even if you only find five things to give away. Make the bedroom a haven.
—Looking at your own photographs of previous warm vacations or others’ photos of sunny places—Pinterest and Flickr are two sites that have lots of gorgeous images—and if you can afford it, plan a little getaway for yourself, even if it’s only a day away where there’s sun. Or if not sun, go to the Dale Chihuly Glass and Garden exhibit at the Seattle Center for a burst of color in a fantasy world.
—Taking Vitamin D3. We in the upper latitudes are chronically short on D, which boosts the immune system (ever wonder why we get so sick in the winter?). Take at least 2,000 IU a day of D3 in the morning and see if it makes a difference!
—Looking up! See what’s above you, up in those tree branches or at the tops of buildings in downtown Bellingham (lots of quirky architectural things!) or flying by in the sky. Think of the soaring ceilings in cathedrals, which direct our gaze upward and, in the process, lift our spirits. Lower ceilings improve performance in detail-oriented tasks, but high ceilings encourage abstract creative thought, and just the action of focusing our eyes upward has the effect of helping us think more positively. See this excellent article in Scientific American (April 22, 2009): http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=building-around-the-mind&sc=WR_20090428
—Singing, humming, growling, or whistling. Or even screaming. That’s right. Let it out. You can do it in the car if you’re shy like me—I do my best therapeutic growling behind the wheel, and not directed at anyone, just because. I don’t know any particular studies that show how vocalizing helps mood (there are a number about helping with brain injury, like this one: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/singing-can-help-repair-brain-damage-1906130.html), but I feel sure it’s beneficial. Be loud and proud.
—Getting acupuncture! There are Western biomedicine studies out there demonstrating the increasingly well known efficacy of acupuncture for mood disorders. I’m not a big fan of these studies because they force the acupuncture into certain protocols that are not in the spirit of Chinese medicine in general, but at least they address the skeptics and doubters. Most people, after an acupuncture session, report feeling relaxed, more comfortable, usually relieved of pain, and less anxious and/or depressed. Here’s one study: http://www.healthcmi.com/index.php/acupuncturist-news-online/572-acupunctureceudepressionmassachusettsdu20
Whatever tricks help, we also need to remember that we’re now well past the shortest, darkest time. Even if we have some bad weather in the next couple of months, the skies are still light past 5 p.m. now, and that’s a huge deal! Go sun!