“I was getting by, but at what cost? That’s the question I had to realize and answer for myself,” says Walter, who recently turned 50.
Walter had been living in the mountains of Colorado for some time but he returned to his home state of Michigan two years ago and confirmed something he already knew: Winter brought on heightened symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Feelings of depression and irritability took hold. His natural affinity to the outdoors was replaced with a disinterest in exercise and overall lethargy.
“I was grumpy all the time, even in the running group I was a part of in Ann Arbor,” he says. “There just wasn’t enough sun or daylight for me to be healthy in that environment. I was taking antidepressants, but I realized I was craving the mountain altitudes and outdoors where I felt balanced.”
Often dismissed as winter blues or cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder is a depression that returns during the same time each year. It usually begins in the fall and worsens through the winter as daylight hours lessen. Symptoms begin to diminish as spring approaches.
According to the Cleveland Clinic people who suffer from SAD have many of the common signs of depression, including:
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Inability to concentrate
- Extreme fatigue or lack of energy
- A ‘leaden’ sensation in the limbs
- Increased need for sleep
- Craving for carbohydrates and accompanying weight gain
Studies show that about 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD, while 10 to 20 percent may suffer from a more mild form of winter blues.
While there are several therapies that are used to treat SAD—including psychotherapy, antidepressants and light therapy—Walter discovered that finding a way back to an environment that better suited him, combined with music, hiking and the mountains, filled in the missing pieces for health and creativity.
“If I get to a mountain top the symptoms disappear for a few days. The altitude makes me feel better,” says Walter. “Music, too, has always been my way to tune my brain into a creative state. It’s like a form of mediation. It takes focus away from any pain and must produce endorphins that help me run. I use music when I’m hiking long distances too.”
Finding your creative outlet can help with symptoms of SAD and lessen the effects. Of course, moving across the country, as Walter did, to a climate that better suits your physical and mental health may feel like a bit of stretch for you. But perhaps a more approachable solution could be to plan a vacation that coincides with the toughest days of winter. This could help in two ways: First, as “relief” in advance of the trip in the form of “hope on the horizon,” then, of course, the actual vacation where you put sun overhead and sand between your toes.
Shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter have been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, notes Psychiatry.org. “Just as sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals, SAD may be an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock, or circadian rhythm, that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule,” the site reports.
While the exact cause of SAD remains unclear, we know the winter months do tend to make us less social. We are indoors for longer periods of time, and we interact less with people and that can be isolating.
Finding creative ways to stay active during the winter solstice can jump-start the artist in you. Here are some ideas:
- Join a painting group
- Take a cooking class
- Start a new exercise routine
- Try cross-country skiing
- Start a winter garden with creative containers
It’s also important to keep to a routine—eat, work, exercise, play and sleep should be on a regular schedule to keep our internal clock in check.
–By Amy Powers