First, let’s clear up one thing about “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD. Everyone is affected by the seasons. That’s not a disorder. That’s being human.
Unless you live near the equator, the length of days changes drastically during the year. In my hometown of New York, they peak at around 15 hours in June and shorten to 9+ hours in December. (In LA, it only ranges from 14-1/2 to 10, while in northern Scotland, the source of my genetic stock, the swing is from 18 to 6-1/2.)
Last week I talked about daylight-saving time ending for the year, which makes this shortening of days seem even worse unless you’re an early morning person:
I don’t know about you, but I don’t get up by 6:30 in the morning, so setting the clock back means I simply lose an hour of daily sunlight. If you work indoors all day, you may see virtually no natural sunlight until the days have lengthened enough again next year.
Some people, without question, are debilitated by seasonal affective disorder; the reduced sunlight triggers depression and they suffer. For them, it’s entirely appropriate to look to mitigate the issue with light therapy and other focused treatments.
A time for introspection
For the rest of us, though, when the days are short, the sunlight is indirect and the air is cold, we are supposed to want to do less, sleep more, gain a little weight. A friend in Maine, where they know a thing or two about dealing with winter, says, “Maybe winter is a time for introspection. Fighting that, we can feel depressed.” It is by expecting our usual level of energy and productivity that we get down on ourselves and feed into a slothful negative spiral. It’s just common sense that when there’s less sunlight people tend to have less energy and adopt a quieter, slower pace. Don’t fight that. Work with it.
Nevertheless, there are things you can do to make the best of the season. Most of the advice for dealing with SAD offered by my friend Therese Borchard over at Beliefnet is good for everyone in wintertime. For example, she recommends getting outdoors in the sun — what little there is — whenever possible. I always suggest going outside for lunch in the summer; if it’s too cold to eat outside, at least go out to get something and bring it back or take a brisk 10-minute walk, so you get a little sunlight. I love the winter for hiking in the woods — the air is crisp and fresh, you don’t sweat, and as you quiet down with your surroundings you realize nature’s much more active than you first thought.
What I want to stress is that you see these things as taking care of yourself, rather than as fixing a disorder.
If you didn’t take advantage of the summer months to go on a retreat, maybe this winter is the time. Or just build more reflective time into the day at home. Curl up and read a good book, perhaps a quiet spiritual one you’ve always meant to read: say, Thérèse of Lisieux’s classic Story of a Soul or the Kathleen Norris memoir, The Cloister Walk. Respect the slower rhythms. And really explore Advent this year! When I discovered Advent, I was fascinated and delighted — it’s a traditional way of entering the winter season with reflection and contemplation; shifting gears, as we should.