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Sunday, March 18

Gapers Block

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I counted down to D-Day slowly, filled with dread and plans. It was a battle I hoped to win, though the war would never be over. Each fall, when the time flips back an hour, I cringe as The Long Darkness stretches out for what seems like forever. May is completely forgotten in the fog of cold, dreariness, and constant darkness. And last Sunday, when the time did finally change, I sighed deeply and shouldered my winter burden.

Remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder book "The Long Winter"? This unspeakably grim depiction of a desolate, blizzard-whipped Plains winter inspires the howling fantods, for sure. More than the cold, Ingalls describes an endless cycle of work, sadness, and isolation. For many, this describes their typical winter experience. But instead of letting depression cloak me and indulging in my winter yen for soup and bread, I'm prepared this year.

The National Mental Health Association defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as "a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and related to seasonal variations of light." We SAD sufferers are solar powered, and the late-October change produces a severe and sudden mood change that doesn't lift until spring. Millions of people, especially women, experience mood shifts during the fall and winter. SAD symptoms include lethargy, winter-only depression, weight gain, starch/sugar cravings, oversleeping, and more.


Fig1. The sun is setting earlier and earlier, throwing off many people's moods.

My therapist tells me that winter light is just a fraction as intense as summer light. This radical solar change tinkers with the delicate balance of serotonin to melatonin in the brain, much like an overeager mechanic working hourly. Heightened levels of winter melatonin overwhelm serotonin, the happy hormone. And because winter affects people differently (some of you fucking love the winter, you lucky bastards), it's difficult to predict why SAD hits one person but leaves another virtually unaffected. A tornado singling out a mobile home.

Luckily, the intense sadness can be lifted through a combination of diet, exercise, and light therapy. And, traditionally, I've followed this plan, but opposite from the way you're supposed to. Instead of my desired regimen of soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and red wine, this winter I'll be gorging on greens and fish. Vitamin supplements -- B-12, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants -- are also recommended to strengthen your chemical resolve.

Rather than shying away from the physical activity in winter, a SAD sufferer absolutely must get moving. Exercise helps increase your serotonin level. Plus, who doesn�t have a tendency to gain weight in the winter? The gym's the only way to combat heavy winter and holiday fare. Getting out in the morning light is extremely important. Winter light, though weak, is still better than fluorescent light. A brisk walk before work, it is said, does wonders for the SAD sufferer. However, in the dead of a Chicago winter, I can't imagine that this is possible or recommended. But if these treatments fail, it's time to pull out the big guns.


Fig2. Grey days are often the hardest for SAD sufferers.

Light therapy and antidepressants can be used to alleviate severe SAD. Phototherapy helps suppress the production of melatonin in your body. Consider picking up a light box. These devices, usually around $150-300, are intense light sources available at specialty retailers. This will help your body's clock "reset" and helps lift depression. Fellow Gapers' Block staffer (and this author's boyfriend) Brian Sobolak uses his light box in the winter for about half an hour. "I usually read or eat breakfast while I use the light, or I take it to work and use it while I check my e-mail." Additionally, he advises SAD sufferers to use the light before 10 a.m. or risk disruption to your sleep cycle. If SAD isn't lifted through diet, exercises, and light therapy, consider talking with a doctor or therapist about antidepressants over the winter.

I had a really hard time last winter, so I sucked up all my courage to see a psychiatrist who prescribed what I hope I'll call "happy fun pills." I'm still waiting for them to kick in. In addition to the standard therapies I'll employ, Brian and I have been mapping out something we like to call "The Winter Manifesto." We set up a separate blog where we post specific winter events and make lists about things we'd like to do this winter. It's helping us generate a little enthusiasm about our least favorite season. And on those days when even getting out of bed seems like the worst thing ever, we can pull up the Manifesto, select an activity, and go.

I'm tired of wasting half the year being sad. Hopefully, by diligently taking vitamins, eating a balanced diet, and by employing the help of a light box, I'll emerge from the Midwestern winter without a black eye. If not, I'll be looking for carpool partners for my drive down to Baja.


About the Author(s)

Shylo Bisnett fights the powers of darkness at Use Your Hands.

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