Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Frugally and Naturally Fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

If you live in a part of the world where you have dramatic shifts in climate during the seasons, you are probably familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Here in Michigan I know a number of people who are affected by it, some severely. In those cases it goes beyond a temporary case of the "winter blues" or "fall doldrums," it is a level of depression that can affect their jobs, relationships and overall health. I've been lucky. In the past I have not been very affected by season change, in fact, I love fall and winter, so I look forward to it. This year, however, has been a little different.

SAD is caused by a number of things, but one of the biggest causers is the change in daylight. Here in the Midwest our days are getting shorter at a fairly rapid pace. The lack of natural light is hard on the system. Personally, I am having a problem with the lack of light in the morning. Now when I talk about struggling with these fall mornings, most of my coworkers roll their eyes and make comments about me not being a morning person, but that isn't what is going on at all. To explain the difference, let me give you a little history:

I've worked at my present job for 10 years now. For the last 8 or so, I have worked a slightly odd schedule. For three or four years I worked 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and for the last few I have worked 10:00 to 7:00 p.m.. Now, I like these schedules. In fact, if I worked at home and could set my own hours I would probably work on the 11 to 8 shift, because that is when I am the most productive. However, I wasn't doing that shift because I hated mornings, nor was I sleeping in until just before I went to work. I liked these schedules precisely because they allowed me to exercise in the morning or do things around the house. In May, my boss eliminated the 10 to 7 shift I was on and the last hold outs, a coworker and I, shifted to 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.. And you know what? It has been fine. I've had absolutely no problems all summer with the new schedule. My only minor complaint is that I miss extra hour at the end of the day when things were quiet to get things done in the office - but the mornings were fine.

Then, mid October that all changed...

At first I thought my difficulties with mornings had to do with my busy schedule, but it didn't feel that way. It felt bigger, darker somehow. I don't really have good words to describe this, but when the alarm went off in the morning, it felt wrong to get up - unnatural. I felt like I was struggling underwater, fighting to get up and get out of bed. It was starting to affect my mood.

After my schedule eased up, but the trouble with the mornings didn't, I realized what was going on. Just a couple of months ago, getting up hadn't been a problem at all. Now it was like climbing a cliff. It had to be because of the seasonal change.

Now there are fairly expensive ways you can combat this - you can purchase sunlamps and light boards to sit by. I also found a fabulous clock that has a lamp in it and it slowly lights up the room and wakes you with soft melodic chimes. It is fabulous and very cool... and over $200. That is just silly, when a simple digital clock costs less than $10 and I can use my cell phone as an alarm for free. Another option is to do what many older Michigan residents do - just move to a warmer state for a few months! None of these are really in my budget though, so I had to find alternatives. I really didn't like the way I was feeling and felt I had to do something about it.

Daylight savings was last weekend and that helps some. This morning when I got up, the sky was a pale silvery gray, but there was light, and that was great to see. But let's face it, that is only a temporary fix, the days are going to continue to get shorter and January and February are long cold, dark months here in Michigan. Here are my solutions:

Get Enough Rest at Night - Okay, this might seem obvious, but remember, my problems with mornings do not stem from lack of sleep. However, I don't want to compound my problems by not getting enough rest. So, I am making sure I am in bed by a reasonable time each night.

Getting Up Earlier - This sounds like the opposite of what I just said, doesn't it? Here's the thing, I'm trying to get to bed in time to get 7-8 hours of good sleep, while at the same time planning on getting up a half hour earlier than I was. I am doing it for two reasons: The first is that I am finding it is much better for my body and mental health if I get up a little earlier and allow myself time to slowly wake up, than it is hitting the snooze button and getting an extra 8 (or 16, or 24, or 32) minutes of bad sleep and then having to rush to make it out the door in time. The other reason I am getting up earlier is -

Exercise - Honestly, I hate exercise, but the effects are tremendous. I am getting up and doing 15 minutes of yoga stretches and 10 minutes of light aerobics. Nothing too strenuous, just enough to get the blood flowing and the brain synapses firing. Then I am doing another (more active) hour at night. I've been at this a week now and I already feel so, so much better. I used to take yoga classes regularly, but when life got busy and I was stressed, I stopped going. Isn't that always the way? When we get stressed and life is rotten, we stop doing the exact things that are best for us, like exercise and eating well - just when we need them the most! Which brings me to -

Eating Well - I have been trying to balance out my meals a little better lately. I always try to eat well, but I tend to go on kicks where I ate the same kinds of foods a lot. Currently that "kick" is having a small portion of some low fat meat and two veggies. One of the big problems with this time of year is the heavy amounts of food and calorie laden dishes. I'm trying to improve my overall health by eating well and getting a variety of nutrients. While there are some different studies showing the value of vitamins in fighting SAD, I figure whatever I can do to improve my health will help!

Drinking Water - Lots of it. In part this is because I have been exercising more, but also this time of year is very hard on skin. I have very dry skin and with being inside in artificial heat, my lips and skin can crack. Lots of water helps. It also is a good beverage for the evening, because unlike many other beverages (pop, juice, alcohol) water doesn't effect sleep behavior. That doesn't mean I am cutting out my hot chocolate or hot cider with cinnamon, it just means I am trying to have them early enough that the sugar and caffeine have time to get through my body before bedtime, and I am washing everything down with big glasses of water.

Getting Sunlight - This has not been easy the past couple of weeks, as we've had a lot of rain and cloudy weather, but when I can, I am opening my blinds and letting in the sun. The best place for me to do this is work, where my office gets quite a bit of light in the morning. Since Seasonal Affective Disorder has to do with the lower amount of natural light, I'm trying to soak up the sunlight when I can.

Turning on the Lights in the Morning - Yes, frugal me is actually turning on lights! I am such a Scrooge when it comes to my electricity bill, but not when it comes to my mental health. I am turning on the lights in the morning as I move about the house a lot more than I have in the past. It is a psychological thing, but it helps.

Appreciating the Season - The final thing I am doing is trying to take time to notice and appreciate these beautiful fall season. The leaves are mostly down now, but fall is a beautiful time of year. Winter is too. I'm trying to remind myself to be grateful for the changing days.

How about you? Do you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or know someone who does? What tips can you give? As I said, I've been making these small changes over the last week or so and really noticed a difference, what works for you?

Photo by: gato-gato-gato
via flickr

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