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Yesterday, I was hiking/walking in one of my favorite places. In Autumn, the skies turn a brilliant shade of azure in Colorado, the sun feels warm and tingly rather than the penetrating death rays of summer, and the air is so clear, it seems you can just reach out and touch the mountains. The Peak had a heavy dusting of snow from a storm the previous day and against that sky makes for a dazzling western horizon.
As I was walking along, thoroughly enjoying my time out-of-doors, I began thinking about SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder. I suffered from SAD for many years before moving to Colorado. I grew up in Michigan and underneath perpetually gray winter skies, gray slush in the streets, gray snow for weeks, grayness everywhere. I felt inundated by gray in winter.
I remember once in college, skipping all my classes one day off on a mission to find color. I was determined to find some color in all that gray. I roamed my little college town for hours before I began seeing hints of color here and there. And it was certainly a stretch to see even that.
Upon moving to Colorado in the mid 80’s, I recall the experience of suddenly realizing that here it was, in the middle of January, and I wasn’t even slightly depressed. I wondered why. I looked around me; it had just dumped a foot of snow the night before but the skies were brilliantly blue, the snow already melting off the streets (never any gray slush here), the Flatirons and foothills were sparkling with the new snow against the sky, and I realized it had to be the light. The light was why I wasn’t depressed. It was then I had another realization - I had suffered from SAD since a teenager and never even knew it.
So, just what is Seasonal Affective Disorder? Also known as Winter Depression, it is a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortage of daylight hours and lack of sunlight in Winter. Also, melatonin secreted by the pineal gland in the brain has been linked to SAD. Symptoms generally begin in the Fall, peak in Winter, and resolve in the Spring. Some of the most common symptoms are oversleeping, fatigue, cravings for carbs and sweets, weight gain (hmm... how could that be?), depression, and loss of libido, among others. A weakened immune system is often seen in people suffering from SAD.
Alas and alack, as I am getting older, I have seen symptoms of SAD returning, even though I live where there is bright light in the Winter...until 4:00 in the afternoon when the sun falls behind the mountains and darkness descends. So what to do? I take light baths on warm sunny afternoons, but perhaps you live in a place where it is gray and cold. Full spectrum light helps, and there are many sources on light therapy and how to do it. Following the Blood Type Diet is crucial as well, being watchful of carbs and emphasizing beneficial meats, dairy, veggies and fruit. I notice my symptoms lessen with a high degree of compliance: very difficult around the holidays, I know. Maintaining your exercise program throughout the winter is equally as important as eating well, too.
But really, if I could name the number one mood elevator in my life it would be: creativity.
Harold, did she really say creativity?
Yes, yes I did.
Now, I know what many of you are thinking; you’re saying to yourself, “Well, I’m not at all creative” and you almost have yourself convinced of that too. Almost.
Creative doesn’t necessarily mean artistic. You can be creative in the way you prepare a meal, playful silliness with your child or spouse, the appreciation of a sunrise or a moving piece of music, dancing with abandon when no one is watching, belting out a torch song driving in the car, telling a loved one how much you enjoy their presence in your life. I have started taking my sketchbook along on my hikes and taking a few minutes to stop and do a few gesture drawings. Now, a visual artist I am not. But I do enjoy sketching, and drawing out in nature really helps me to see what I am seeing; I gain a greater understanding of it by taking the time to really observe. And let me tell you, my drawings are not anything I would ever show anybody. But, they help me keep my creative spirit alive.
So, I challenge you to find time in your life to express your own, unique self through your creativity. Even just 15 minutes a day will make a difference. If you are stumped for ideas, Nina Wise has a book called “A Big, New, Free, Happy, Unusual Life”. Ya gotta love a book with a title like that. She is a performance artist and teacher of improvisation, there are many exercises and info in the book to get you started.
Fifteen minutes a day. Are you with me?
I’m looking forward to feeling great all the way through the approaching dark season.
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