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Reach for the Light: The Care and Treatment of Sad Moods in Winter

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

(Image: http://mkalty.org/field-of-flowers-in-the-summer-light/://mkalty.org/field-of-flowers-in-the-summer-light/)

(Image: http://mkalty.org/field-of-flowers-in-the-summer-light/://mkalty.org/field-of-flowers-in-the-summer-light/)

Signs of Fall
As early as late August, the light outside looks different – paler and muted with a lessened ability to stimulate the brain and to brighten our surroundings. The sun rises later. The sunset often comes before we have finished our work. Inside and outside, there will be less and less available light (light that our bodies can use) until the winter solstice. Nature’s response can be to go to bed or to find more light. Bears go to bed, spending more and more time in their caves as the dark hibernation period of deep winter approaches. Migratory birds head South in search of more light.

Most humans cannot do either of these things for one reason or another, so, in some countries, the time of day is adjusted to maximize human exposure to the light.

Reduced light to the brain can affect circadian rhythms (patterns of sleeping and wakefulness within a 24-hour period) in human brings. Some researchers think that a reduction in light causes the brain to produce more melatonin, a hormone associated with increased sleep and depression. Light also helps us produce Vitamin D without which our energy levels can drop. When the light fades, fatigue can set in.

People who have low energy and sad moods in winter are said to have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It can make winter difficult even for those who are not clinically depressed.

Clients under a doctor’s care might consult with their doctors and increase their intake of SSRIs, medicines that help them retain higher levels of an energizing hormone called serotonin, during fall and winter. For others, natural methods might suffice to heighten the moods of winter. If you have SAD or if you suspect that fall and winter influence your moods, here are some things you can do:

Morning Sunshine
One of my young Clients, a university student, always has her morning coffee out on her deck. Even when it is cold, she bundles up appropriately and goes outside. She calls it her Morning Sunshine Hour. Even if it is cloudy, her brain is getting more natural light. The hours between 6:00 AM and 8:00 AM are said to be the best for the intake of natural light. If you walk or run, this is a great time to do it, and, in addition to the light, exercise is almost always helpful in the treatment of sad moods.

Maximize the available light in your home. Paint rooms with light, bright, high-gloss paint that will pick up, reflect, and maximize the light in your environment. Keep curtains and blinds open. Is your favorite chair in a dark area? Move it near to a window or light source.

Take Vitamin D and 5-HTP
Ask your doctor or a nutritionist to do a blood work up to see if your levels of Vitamin D are sufficient. Higher doses of Vitamin D are often prescribed for seasonal sadness, but first make sure that you need it and how much you need in order to feel a change in your energy level.

5-HTP is an amino acid that helps us create the mood-booster serotonin and the relaxant melatonin from tryptophan. Please do not experiment with 5-HTP – especially if you are taking psychotropic medication. Always ask your health professional if it is appropriate for you.

Light Therapy
One of the most popular treatments for SAD is regular (daily) exposure to an artificial source of broad spectrum light. You can buy various types of light boxes that provide light that is at least 10 times the intensity of regular indoor lighting. Scientists at NIMH suggest wavelengths between 280-320 nm (which allow the skin to produce vitamin D), and they suggest white light without UV to protect the skin.

There are many kinds of light boxes. You might need to spend as much as a half-hour a day in close proximity to a light box. It would be great if you could go about normal activities like reading or eating during that time.

There are even light boxes that are dawn simulators. You can turn the box on when you wake up and allow it to go through a brightening cycle that imitates the sun’s gradually increasing light in the morning.

Working with Thoughts to Improve Moods
Just as the light is necessary to us, it is good to understand the meaning of the winter as a period of conception, incubation, gestation, and growth. Are great changes in your future? Are they underground right now, or on the periphery of your consciousness, waiting to be born? In the two months prior to the winter solstice, members of the Judeo-Christian community will celebrate the festivals of light – Hanukkah and Christmas. After the Winter Solstice, each day will bring a tiny bit more light until that first amazing day of full sunlight when, in seeing the return of the light, we can fully sense its spiritual meaning.

Reach for the Light
Here is something very beautiful that one of my Clients recently wrote about the despondent moods that have now started to go away. I have her permission to share it with you.

You have to go toward the light. You lean and stretch and reach for it. If you are in an in between place where you could just as easily go toward despair that is when you pray for an opening to see the smallest glimmer. When it comes you immediately move toward it. You have to trust it. Even if you come from generations of darkness you can still find light when you are ready to see.

Are you having trouble reaching for the light? Come and talk to one of us, and we will make suggestions.

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