New York City is known for having an extreme climate. We have hot, humid summers and cold, blistery winters, with a few sunny and mild days of spring and fall in between. Even though New Yorkers are known for being tough, many of us are affected by sudden changes in weather, especially as the more gentle weather of fall gives way to the cold and dark of winter. We end up spending more time indoors and we tend to socialize a little bit less.
For some of us, though, this triggers a kind of depression that’s specific to the colder months. Some people call it the winter blues. Its official term is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Once the weather gets cold, do you:
- Find it hard to get out of bed?
- Experience a drop in energy?
- Feel more sad or gloomy?
- Crave junk food more?
If so, you might suffer from seasonal depression. You should always see your doctor if you ever experience sudden changes in your health, in order to get an official diagnosis. However, in a minute, I’ll give you some simple and effective ways to combat seasonal depression.
But first, why does this happen?
Even though we don’t fully understand why some people are more susceptible to seasonal depression, there are some theories. It may have something to do with sunlight and the brain. On a sunny day, daylight entering our eyes increases the level of serotonin in our brain, which causes us to feel good. At the same time, the daylight also prevents the serotonin from converting to melatonin, which is a hormone that causes sleepiness or drowsiness. During December, January and February, we have less direct sun exposure, so the opposite chemistry happens, which causes us to experience symptoms of depression. Scientists think it may have been adaptive in prehistoric times to help us preserve our energy during the colder months when there was less food available. But it’s not clear why some people in modern days are more susceptible to it than others.
Let there be light
Light therapy is one very effective way to stop the symptoms of seasonal depression. There are light therapy lamps that when prescribed by a doctor and used regularly for an hour a day significantly reduce symptoms of seasonal depression. But not everyone wants to sit in front of a lamp. The lamps can also be pricey. (Find out if your health insurance covers it!) Going outside every day and taking advantage of the all the daylight hours is another way to give yourself more light during the darker months.
Keep up your usual good routines
Seasonal depression is a kind of stress reaction. Our body is telling us something is wrong, but we may not have the energy to do something about it. It’s important to get enough sleep, keep exercising, and eat right – you know, the basics. Unfortunately, when we’re under stress, we may not feel like doing any of this, which just causes us to feel more depressed. Treatment almost always involves reversing this cycle. So don’t just go outside during the day to catch some sun: go for a brisk walk. If you don’t want to join a gym, take the stairs and add some more walking to your commute. Make sure you are eating regularly and healthily – fruits and vegetables, high fiber and low fat are best. Try to work on your “sleep hygiene” by going to sleep at the same time each night. Turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep. If you’re wound up, trick your body into feeling sleepy by taking a hot bath or shower.
It can also be effective to meet with a professional counselor to identify what external and internal stressors you have control over, so that you are less vulnerable to the changes in the weather. Here at the Musicians’ Assistance Program, we have clinical social workers who can help you to assess your overall level of stress. Together we can come up with a special treatment plan for you to combat seasonal blues. The service is confidential and it’s free for members of Local 802.
You can also talk to your doctor about whether an antidepressant might help. If you don’t have adequate insurance or need a referral, you can contact us here in the MAP office and we can help you connect to more accessible or affordable medical care. If you are a Local 802 member between the ages of 18 and 64, you also have access to the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, which provides free or low-cost health services to members of the entertainment industry.
What else can help?
As a social worker, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of Vitamin D supplements being helpful, but again, you should check with your doctor about taking supplements. And here’s some fun advice: if you can afford it, plan a cheap vacation somewhere sunny and warm in the dead of winter. This can do wonders to break up the effects of the colder and darker months.
Just remember that your body and mind are your most precious commodities. If you don’t take care of your health, doing what you love becomes more difficult. So health comes first!