Fighting the Real Winter Doldrums
By bonnie mcmaken
February 16, 2010
When we were upperclassmen at college in Chicago, my friends and I would gleefully—and a little cruelly—observe the freshman class during the winter season. Initially they were beside themselves, flinging snowballs and sipping hot chocolate in their cute down vests and fingerless gloves. We would overhear students from California, Texas and Florida in the dining hall: “Winter here isn’t as bad as I thought it would be!”
Oh, but they soon learned the brutal ways of winter, and we were there to watch the transformation that many of us had experienced. In February we witnessed these same students trekking across campus in their parkas, braced against the cold, dark days, and blowing snow. This winter was not the same friend they had encountered several months before.
Winter can be rough. Sure, when it first arrives we feel like giddy little children. There’s a romantic nostalgia associated with winter: snow, the holidays, getting cozy by the fire. But what of February—when the days are short and dark, the Christmas cheer has passed and the bitter winter still drags on?
Some of us feel the effects of winter more than others, even to the point of sorrow. Take the poet Robert Burns, for example:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!The name for this “winter melancholy”—or “winter blues”—is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short, appropriately enough). However, Burns wouldn’t have been diagnosed with SAD because like most mood disorders, it’s been recently accepted and understood by the mental health community.
But is SAD a legitimate disorder, or is it just an excuse to be a hermit in the winter? It’s an easy target for ridicule, kind of like Restless Leg Syndrome (which is actually real, by the way). Doesn’t everyone feel the affects of winter? Depression just because it’s dark or cold might seem weak to some people. Even 30 Rock has jumped on the bandwagon, referencing SAD in the “Winter Madness” episode in January.
SAD is for real, though, according to reputable sources like the Mayo Clinic. It’s defined as a type of depression that affects a person during the same season each year (usually winter because of a lack of light in many places around the world), and like any depression, there are varying degrees of intensity.
So how do you know if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder? I’m always wary of self-diagnosing because in the past, I’ve convinced myself I suffer from a slew of diseases and disorders only by reading symptom lists on WebMD. A sick hobby, if you will. However, sometimes awareness can trigger truth within us, open up a reality about ourselves, and put us on the path to a healthier self.
Most of the symptoms of SAD are the same as symptoms of other types of depression, but the difference is when they occur. These symptoms include weight gain, decreased interest in normal activities, oversleeping and feeling drowsy during the day, and eating more (especially carbohydrates). Overall, women are more affected by SAD than men, and it seems to occur mostly in young adults.
If these symptoms describe you during the winter months, it doesn’t have to be your norm. As Christians, it’s hard to admit that we despair, or are undisciplined, or don’t want to be with people, or just don’t want to do anything. It’s that whole rejoice-in-the-Lord-always mentality. Trust me, I get it. Remember the key demographic of young women? That’s me. I’ve never been diagnosed for SAD, but as a Chicagoan in February, the most depressing month ever, I’m definitely not immune to the sadness winter brings … or the excessive carb eating.
While there’s not a cure for SAD, there are some things that help. Most doctors prescribe light therapy—sitting in front of a special “light box” for a specific amount of time each morning. You can even buy these online. Therapy is often recommended, too, but unless there are other underlying issues, it is usually not extensive.
If you think you have SAD, tell someone: a friend, a spouse, a pastor. Seriously. It doesn’t make you weak. It’s not lame. The whole Jekyll and Hyde nature of winter is confusing, and our whole selves can be affected by this fickle—and seemingly never-ending—season.
Sometimes living in a season of literal darkness and cold is necessary, but if our hearts feel this chill, we don’t have to despair alone. There is hope in therapy, in community, and primarily in believing that the light of Christ is able break through even our deepest sorrow and gloom.
Bonnie McMaken is a musician, foodie, writer, wife and mother. She lives with her husband and baby daughter in Chicago, Ill.