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Using Guided Imagery to Help Avert a SAD Winter

19 Jan

The update was written by Maggie DeMellier - filling in for Belleruth this week.

I used to be hungry, lazy and in a bad mood from fall until spring. It took mindfulness and a move to California and back to Ohio for me to arrive at an appreciation of winter.  Growing up in Pennsylvania, I hated winter. I would hide out and count the days until spring. I moved to California more than 15 years ago, and learned you can actually live where ice does not fall out of the sky and you don’t have to scrape it off your car for half of the year. When I had to move back to Ohio, my dislike of winter turned to abject hatred. I refused to buy a winter coat for the first two years I was here, because I felt that would mean I was staying here and I longed to return to Berkeley. 

Not having a warm coat made winter even more brutal (a great example of how it is your resistance to ‘what is’ that causes your suffering). I cursed the snow and ice and gloomy days. My kids and pets seemed to have no problems with the transition. My California cat jumped from my deck into a snow drift during our first winter here. I fretted and fished her out, placed her safely on the deck and she did it again. In an attempt to make my world more Berkeley-like, I began regular meditation and found some groups to join and classes to take. I read everything I could find on meditation and being in the moment. Then came the acceptance and realization that winter is as necessary in life as spring and summer - and every breath, like every moment, truly is precious and should not be wished away. With that acceptance came a different lifestyle and relief from my symptoms of SAD.

Once called the winter blues or winter blahs, the condition we now know as SAD (seasonal affective disorder) was thought to be simply cyclical doldrums or a dislike for cold weather until the 1980’s, when researchers began to correlate the reduction in natural light with recurring depression and lethargy.
 
Most of us can relate to the theory of a human hibernation response, which means people in cold climates are predisposed by nature to eat more, sleep longer and move less during winter months. Because people are not able to hibernate, as animals do, the biological slow-down leads to depression and other symptoms, but there are ways to counteract this response.

Recently, scientists have studied the role of Vitamin D in seasonal depression. Several studies by the National Institutes for Health have linked low Vitamin D levels with depression. This vitamin, often called the sunshine vitamin, is obtained from exposure to the sun’s UVB rays, so it makes sense that limited exposure to the sun in winter relates to seasonal depression. Because the use of broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen is recommended to prevent skin cancer and premature aging, and an estimated 40 percent of adults are deficient in Vitamin D, many physicians recommend people take Vitamin D supplements, not just in winter, but all year long.
 
Symptoms of SAD can include lack of interest in normal activities, weight gain, sleep disturbances, (sleeping too much or too little) food cravings, melancholy and an over-all sluggish feeling. Most experts agree that If the symptoms are not related to a physical disorder and they occur cyclically in late fall or early winter and continue until summer, and if they fit this pattern for two consecutive years, they could be attributed to SAD.
 
Some people who experience severe depression that interferes with their daily activities require professional treatment, but for people who experience less severe symptoms, there are some simple steps they can take to combat the wintertime blues:

  • Many people have found light therapy helpful. To read about a Vermont study involving the  use of light therapy,  please read Belleruth’s blog article here.
  • Exercise outdoors. Even a twenty minute walk can go a long way toward relieving symptoms of seasonal depression by helping to regulate the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin, and creating a release of endorphins,  according to Dr. Mehmet Oz. To read more on his suggestions to relieve seasonal depression, go to www.doctoroz.com
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  • Get proper nutrition. This might be a tough one in winter, when fresh fruit and vegetables are not as plentiful or tasty. To make matters worse, many people experience post-holiday weight gain. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, we are surrounded by holiday goodies, quickly followed by Superbowl Sunday and Valentine’s Day and their assorted temptations.  According to Dr. Andrew Weil, there are easy ways to get proper nutrition. He emphasizes getting enough Vitamin D, and recommends taking a supplement of at least 2,000 iu daily. You can read more about Dr. Weil’s recommendations here
  • Move more. Even if you can’t exercise outside, dance, jump rope or roll out an exercise mat on the living room floor and do some yoga, stretches, Pilates, sit-ups or whatever you enjoy  - but keep moving around for at least a half-hour each day. Don’t be surprised if kids, pets and family members join in. Pretty soon, the whole family is moving.

  • Use guided imagery. Each winter, we hear from scores of people, some of them seeking advice on what imagery to use for depression, winter weight gain or a generalized winter funk. Others contact us to tell us what imagery they used and how well it worked for them.  While we never recommend using guided imagery in place of professional treatment, there are many audio programs that have been used successfully to help with the symptoms of SAD.  Belleruth’s Healthful Sleep, our all-time best-seller, is popular for insomniacs, and equally popular with those who feel the urge to hibernate, because it helps them get quality sleep. Dr. Rubin Naiman’s The Yoga of Sleep offers help in setting up a different way of approaching sleep, encouraging listeners to re-vamp their nightstands, develop their own bedtime stories and keep a bedtime journal. In winter, there is also an increased interest in our weight-loss programs and those that help people develop healthy eating patterns. Our popular Emotional Eating Mastery Kit is an excellent resource, and winter is a great time to transform your relationship with food. For that generalized funk, we highly recommend Belleruth’s Relaxation and Wellness, Julie Lusk’s Power of Presence and Radiant Heart Yoga, by Shiva Rea, to name just a few. Finally, to help with acceptance (we’ll get to that in a moment) we recommend Dr. Emmett Miller’s Accepting Change and Moving on, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Guided Mindfulness Meditation, Lynne Newman’s  Divine Alchemy and a host of others too numerous to mention. Find them on our website,  or in the new 2014 catalog, hot off the presses and coming your way soon.
  • Develop an appreciation for winter.  This might take some mindfulness meditation to arrive at acceptance before reaching appreciation. Once you do accept and appreciate winter, you begin to see things that you never saw before, how a red bird stands out against a snowy forest, the way a stream finds its way around the frosty rocks and patches of ice and keeps flowing, the way the stars stand out against a pure night sky and the way the trees willingly let go of their leaves and stand patiently, snow-covered, wind-blown and unfettered. You notice the way you feel alive when you take that first breath of cold, crisp air and how kids and animals seem to make the most of the things we consider winter hardships. You begin to remember how you actually liked winter as a child and tried to catch snowflakes on your tongue.
  • Be kind. Open your heart to those who are in need and be kind to the animals and the earth.
  • One kind word can warm three winter months”—Japanese Proverb

As always, this is your blog and we love hearing from you and knowing you are out there. Winter-lovers, winter-haters - we are all one, and we enjoy being here for you, even if it means being in Ohio this time of year.

Maggie DeMellier

Maggie DeMellier has been Health Journeys go-to customer service representative and marketing associate since March 2012. She worked as a surgical technician and pharmacy technician before she earned a BA in Mass Media Communication at The University of Akron. She operates a freelance writing business, specializing in medical ads, news articles, police blotters, features and business writing.  She was a teacher at a career college for six years, and earned a MA in Forensic Psychology in 2010. Maggie is the co-author of Parenting by Law or Grace, published by Synchronisity Press, in 2004.