It’s 8:00 a.m. in Winnipeg in late August. The sky is the colour of nicotine-stained apartment walls. It’s no December sky, but it’s certainly not proper August light—and it’s only going to get worse.
For as far back as I can remember, the shorter days of fall ushered in a more sober, down-to-business mood. But some years, the lack of light put me flat out of business; and the December solstice, the darkest day of the year, usually marked my lowest low.
I’d start to feel draggy in October. I found it harder to get out of bed and my energy would start lagging around 3:00 p.m. In an effort to pick myself up, I’d often go for a sugary carb like a muffin. (Back in the ‘90s, we actually thought muffins were a healthy snack, not a carby calorie bomb). Invariably, I would get a burst of energy followed by a crash that would leave me feeling even more lethargic.
I also noticed a shift in my thinking. Self-doubt and negative thoughts would start to take hold in the fall; whereas in the summer, I could just brush them away like a pesky mosquito. Performing mundane tasks would suddenly feel overwhelming. I grew increasingly irritable with people and would occasionally say the things I would only think during lighter months.
By November, I would be in a full seasonal depression. I would gain weight from trying to perk myself up with the carbs, which would cause me to further spiral into a bad place. For many years, I had a winter wardrobe and a summer one.
By December, I felt like I was in a bleak, black-and-white Scandinavian film shot in the dead of winter and my life seemed futile and doomed. Every minute would be packed with more existential angst than Woody Allen film. Somehow I survived these winter funks, but it was downright miserable. When I finally got the official diagnosis that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) just over a decade ago, I felt relieved because the sleep specialist not only gave me a diagnosis; he offered viable solutions.
Over the years, I have mastered the art and science of combating winter blues. Here is my attack strategy:
1. Light Therapy
I start using a portable light therapy device in late August. My light therapy product of choice is The Litebook. Clinical research showed the wavelengths of light emitted by The Litebook likely assists in regulating the body’s melatonin levels. It also increases the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. I like the Litebook because they conducted clinical trials and it’s Canadian company. I use the device for 30 minutes each morning and it staves off that groggy, draggy feeling.
Although it is often the last thing I want to do when I’m feeling lethargic and it’s minus 30 out, exercise instantly elevates my mood, clears my thinking and makes me feel vivacious. I exercise as much for the mental benefits as I do for the physical. I work out at least five times a week, and I feel best when I exercise long and hard enough to break a sweat.
3. Proper Nutrition
Although my body wants nothing but processed carbs, I’ve succumbed enough times to know that giving my body sugar and starch will only end in sugar spikes and crashes and weight gain. I strive to eat lean and clean because there’s nothing more depressing than popping buttons and splitting pants—and that is what will happen if I don’t watch it. When I fall off the wagon like I did last weekend (mmmmm BBQ chicken pizza), I do not sweat it because that will only lead to more self-sabotage, but I do get right back on the wagon.
4. No Alcohol
Alcohol is a depressant and it’s full of sugar and empty calories. For those reasons, I abstain. I can remember years that I felt in tipsy good cheer, but it was an inauthentic buzz and I would always feel blue the next day. If you suffer from any kind of depression, putting a depressant in your body is generally a bad idea, although self-medicating with alcohol is extremely common.
5. Bright Lights, Sparkles and Charity
I used to despise Christmas and all the emotionally exploitative marketing and commercialization that goes with it. Railing against it, however, did not help my mood. Over the years, I have learned to love lights, the festively decorated houses and all the sparkly, glittery wrappings. I regard them as a kind of light therapy. I also make sure I have glittery toenails so I can look at the sparkles when I practise hot yoga.
Charity also helps. By focusing on those in need, I get into the spirit of giving. One year I was Santa to a senior. “My” senior provided a list of things she wanted and I shopped around for toiletries that I thought she’d like, consulted beauty advisors about what body sprays seniors prefer and got her a sweater the colour of the flower after which she was named. It did wonders for my soul and I get excited when I think about her opening all the goodies I put together for her.
So that’s what works for me. I could easily succumb to it and live like a nocturnal beast for half the year, but I do not like to waste time and suffer needlessly. Bright light therapy, exercise, good sleep hygiene, proper nutrition and sleep and soul activities keep me in good cheer even during the darkest days of the year.