Seasonal Depression: Why Winter Means The Blues

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One of my great joys of middle age has been perennial gardening. I freely admit to have no conception whatever of garden design. I buy one of any plant I like and stick it in where I have room, with just a little thought to color combinations and space. As a result my garden from afar looks like a crazy quilt. But I like to look from up close, to see the growth of individual plants that interest me, how their leaves and stems spring up from the earth, how they blossom and flourish in the summer heat.

There is something about the rebirth of the world in spring, the cycle through summer and even into September and the fall, when I can see the plants preparing themselves for the winter to come, that I find deeply pleasurable. It seems to me to have to do with the cycle of death and rebirth, something about how I experience my own body aging but my children coming into full maturity, that gives me a sense of continuity and some degree of acceptance of my own mortality. And it’s more than just a state of mind – I get up early in the morning and go out to see what I see new in the garden – I come home from work and can’t wait to go weeding or transplanting. I feel energy throughout my body.

Winter: A Season of Depression

While the terms seasonal depression and seasonal affective disorder are new, people have long recognized that winter makes depression worse.

A certain slant of light, on winter afternoons
That oppresses, like the weight of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us; we can find no scar
But internal difference where the meanings are…
Tis the seal, despair –
An imperial affliction sent us of the air.
Emily Dickinson

One of my great joys of middle age has been perennial gardening. I freely admit to have no conception whatever of garden design. I buy one of any plant I like and stick it in where I have room, with just a little thought to color combinations and space. As a result my garden from afar looks like a crazy quilt. But I like to look from up close, to see the growth of individual plants that interest me, how their leaves and stems spring up from the earth, how they blossom and flourish in the summer heat. There is something about the rebirth of the world in spring, the cycle through summer and even into September and the fall, when I can see the plants preparing themselves for the winter to come, that I find deeply pleasurable. It seems to me to have to do with the cycle of death and rebirth, something about how I experience my own body aging but my children coming into full maturity, that gives me a sense of continuity and some degree of acceptance of my own mortality. And it’s more than just a state of mind – I get up early in the morning and go out to see what I see new in the garden – I come home from work and can’t wait to go weeding or transplanting. I feel energy throughout my body.

But I hate winter. My zen-like peace that I find in the garden only lasts through the last days of fall. When winter comes I’m bored, grouchy, sorry for myself, depressed, withdrawn, a bear who can’t get to sleep. It certainly feels to me as if it’s more than being deprived of my favorite leisure activity. It feels qualitatively different. There are plenty of other things I can do besides gardening, but I don’t want to do them; and I have trouble enjoying the other things I normally enjoy – conversation, friends, my kids, reading. My get up and go has got up and went. I can usually force myself out of this mood – and I have some favorite techniques I’ll share later – but sometimes it’s very hard. The fact that I can force myself out probably means that I’m not suffering from a serious depression – but I hope we can get into a discussion of what the boundaries are between the blues and real depression, how to know when to get help, etc. I also know that this funk always seems to disappear in April and May, and it sure feels like it’s something outside of myself – a big wet blanket comes down over me in December and starts to lift in March – so I wonder just how much of this I have control over and how much is something that is happening to me. And this is something else I hope we can discuss, what is the function of sunlight in all this, what is the function of lack of opportunity for favorite activities, the function of being cooped up breathing stale air, etc.

Depression is a complex condition that blurs our Western boundaries between mind and body, nature and nurture, self and others. Most people with depression describe difficulties in their childhood or later in life that have contributed to low self-esteem and a sensitivity to rejection, an uncertainty about the self and an inability to enjoy life. But this is not true for everyone; some people who appear very stable and well integrated develop it suddenly, unexpectedly, in response to a life change. There is clearly a biochemical component to depression, and medication can be very helpful for most people, but it is not sufficient treatment for very many. Most people with depression have developed self-defeating emotional and behavior patterns that have to be changed before a permanent recovery is possible. The truth is that whether the roots of depression are in the past in childhood, or in the present in the brain, recovery can only come about through a continuous act of will, a self-discipline applied to emotions, behavior, and relationships in the here and now. This is a hard truth, because no one deserves to feel this way, and it doesn’t seem fair that the blameless have to help themselves. Besides, the depressed are always being told to snap out of it, pull themselves together, don’t give in to weakness, and it’s the cruelest, most unfeeling, advice they can be given.

People who are depressed work very hard at living, at trying to solve their problems, but their efforts are unproductive because the aim is bad, the object of attention is wrong. The real battle of depression is between parts of the self. Depressed people are fighting shadows, ghosts, pieces of themselves that they can’t integrate and can’t let go. The harder they work, the more they do what they know how to do, the worse things get. When their loved ones try to help in the usual ways, the common-sense ways that only seem natural expressions of caring and concern, they get rejected. The depressed person then feels more guilty and out of control.

People with depression have to learn new ways of living with themselves and others – new emotional skills. These skills take practice, coordination, and flexibility. Instead of the furious struggle of shadowboxing, they have to learn emotional habits that are much more like swimming – smooth, rhythmic, learning to float, learning to be comfortable in the water. Depressed people are great strugglers, but to struggle is to drown. Better to learn how to let the water hold you up.

The families of people with depresion also have to learn new skills. Many of the familiar patterns of family interaction are related to the depression. With the best intentions, family members sometimes make things worse for the depressive. They have to learn how to mix confrontation and support, caring and limits. In the process of changing, some family members will come to grips with distressing truths about themselves – but the truth is nothing to be afraid of.

What to do with the seasonal depression:

In all of these, be cautious to set specific and limited goals. Be happy with small steps and don’t be so ambitious that you give up before you start. When you do something, take the time to enjoy it, and take the time afterward to savor your accomplishment.

  • exercise, aerobically
  • go on a reading program – Dickens, leCarre
  • do good deeds – give blood, visit a shut-in
  • play with your pets
  • organize your closet
  • go on the wagon for a month
  • cultivate your sense of humor – Marx bros, M. Hulot, Mel Brooks Airplane, Naked Gun
  • socialize – get together with friends informally- have an impromptu potluck
  • phone or write to old friends
  • cook something different, a new kind of cuisine
  • get an orchid
  • sort thru old photos
  • hang out at the library
  • organize an outing to New York or Boston for a museum and dinner
  • join a reading group
  • listen to a book on tape
  • make fudge
  • make soup, and bring some to a neighbor you don’t know well
  • get up early or sleep late – vary your routine
  • go swimming
  • music – play it loud, without any distractions
  • learn the computer and get online
  • rearrange the furniture
  • shop the garden catalogs
  • wear loud colors
  • buy some flowers
  • learn a joke a day and tell it to five people
  • at your impromptu party, play pass the tangerine, or Twister
  • have a day of beauty, or grow a beard, or shave a beard
  • take walks
  • take naps

1 Comment

  1. Laura

    April 14, 2015 at 4:19 am

    I really feel the impact from December through to the end of February. I used to “boost’ myself by going for a few tanning sessions but with the now known effects of the damaging rays I had ceased. This year I purchased a light therapy lamp with the ionization feature and use it twice daily (morning and evening 30 minutes each). I didn’t think it was actually working so I stopped for 4 days and noticed a definite decline in my mood. Now I’m religious about it. Morning session with my coffee and a book, evening session after dinner cleanup with my sleepytime tea and my book. I live north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, so our winters do not get enough of the good rays during the winter months.

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