SAD: Battling the winter blahs

It’s grey, it’s cold, and there’s no birdsong. If winter always gets you down, try these solutions

SAD: Battling the winter blahs

Source: Best Health magazine, January/February 2014; Image: Thinkstock

I recently acquired a pair of sunglasses that I refuse to take off ’til April. I don’t care where I am: a Valentine’s dinner, the office, Sobeys. I am prepared to go about looking like a cartoon spy even in the middle of the night because I need my Happy Lenses. That’s what they’re called, actually: the Spy Happy Lens, a type of sunglasses that may well help lift my winter-darkened mood.

According to the company, Spy, the lens draws a maximum amount of long-wave blue light to the eye, generating the same ‘Oh my, what a marvellous day’ feeling you might get on a sunny afternoon in July. ‘Exposure to sunlight’especially long-wave blue light’has been stated to foster positive physiological changes, raising mood and alertness,’ the company maintains.

Donning these glasses is just one of several strategies I am determinedly adopting this year to fend off seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I am completely fed up with the bleak and despondent state I inevitably, gradually slide into somewhere between December and March.

What causes SAD?

What it is, precisely, that triggers SAD remains unknown, which makes it a bit tricky to fend off. The conventional thinking is that winter depression is related to the diminished sunlight. Natural visible light (as opposed to electric) may regulate the production of the brain chemicals considered crucial for good mood and high energy. Specifically, serotonin and melatonin seem to be governed by natural light cycles. Less daytime causes the depletion of serotonin and the overproduction of melatonin, prompting some of us to lie face down on the couch. (Melatonin is the neurotransmitter that tells us to sleep.)

There may be other factors, including genetic history, that make people prone to SAD. In my case, a preference for seasonal exercise’lake swimming and hiking ‘may cause a mood drop in the winter as I become more sedentary. But, certainly, the need for summery blue sunshine underlies the thinking about light therapy, which has been the non-pharmaceutical treatment of choice. Exposure to specially designed lamps or boxes projecting blue long-
wave light for between 15 and 45 minutes each morning has shown lots of clinical success for SAD, according to research in the journal Anxiety and Depression.

Winter in the city

For me, though, another issue is the view. Urban landscapes in January just flat-out depress me. There are two winter seasons in my life when I escaped the clutches of SAD. One was when I lived in Mexico, where the sun sets
early in January even if it’s wildly bright at noon. So light, as such, didn’t seem to be the active ingredient in how I felt. But I was surrounded by colour, birdsong, beauty.

The second time I avoided SAD was when I took up residence in the snowy countryside amidst cedar and pine trees near Quebec’s Gatineau National Park. Why did I stay happy there? I suspect that what triggers or offsets my own personal brand of seasonal affective disorder is, simply, access to nature.

In cities, when the leaves fall and the lawns die, one is left with very little nature. The colourless manufactured landscape of bricks and metal and wire and road becomes much more evident to my eye. Similarly, the soundscape changes when birds migrate. I still remember walking in an alley near my house last March and hearing the first bird sing. It thrilled me so much that I stopped in my tracks and gasped. Literally, the absence of birdsong may be driving me crazy.

How nature boosts mental health

Sure enough, there is research about this. Psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have been studying the importance of nature for mental health, in work that has influenced how architects and planners design buildings. This work, on ‘restorative environments,’ has led to roof gardens and potted trees and office-based greenery of all kinds. The Kaplans found that office workers with a view of nature liked their jobs more, enjoyed better health and reported greater life satisfaction.

But could this be applied to SAD? 

A Swedish study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that it can be. Researchers reported that symptoms related to stress and depression, including those that are brought about by prolonged adverse weather and annual time changes, can be reduced as a result of exposure to green spaces and rural outdoor settings. Aha! I thought so. So here’s my long-term goal: Get the hell out of Dodge.

How to handle SAD

But in the meantime, tied to the city for various reasons, I am going to make a much more concerted effort to turn my home and office into virtual greenhouses, stuffing them full of plants and even, I think, buying giant wall posters featuring pictures of forests and gardens. I may even buy a desk fountain, just for the burbling sound of water.

It’s hard to tell how much boost I get from the sunglasses. On a leaden grey day, they don’t make things look any sunnier. And I just look a bit ridiculous trudging around in them. Light therapy is said to be dose dependent, so they would need to be maximizing enough invisible blue light. Some of us need more light, others need less. Clearly, mine needs to also come with a bouquet of flowers.

I’m combining indoor nature, weekend nature getaways, and my splurge on Spy Happy Lenses (which cost between $95 and $200) and a light therapy box (which costs around $200).

And in fact, I’ve found there is an additional element that helps most: a winter exercise routine. Specifically, I’ve discovered that I like doing Zumba, the dance exercise with its sensual Latin music and movement. Maybe it reminds me of living in Mexico, or of holidays on the beach. But there’s no question that after each class I feel just a little bit sunnier. Hurrah!


This article was originally titled "Seeing winter in a new light" in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!