February is our halfway point in our long slog towards spring. So let’s talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder or those winter blues. Any sentient being living in New York feels some of the familiar symptoms of the winter blues, including sluggishness, oversleeping, weight gain, poor concentration, social withdrawal and a loss of interest in activities.
The so-called hibernation response is something we have in common with bears, but in their case, they go with the flow and do not fight Mother Nature. Humans are far too active and driven to give in to things like biorhythms, so we gut it out.
Our civilization has established a variety of ways for people to cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The dates of our major holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas tell you that they have been coordinated with the coming of winter and serve as a defense against all the depressing aspects of the winter that is soon arriving. But after Jan. 1 we are faced with three months of darkness, gray skies, brown ugly tree lines, and then there are the cold and the wind.
Winter is flu season. Winter is when we do not play golf, swim, bike, hike or play baseball. Winter is the time of itchy skin and weight gain and if you are very lucky, it’s time for a month or two in either the Florida Keys or Carmel by the Sea.
The cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is sunlight deficiency, loss of Vitamin D and activity limits due to the cold. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is common and especially so in the northern states.
The symptoms suggest that if you suffer from SAD, you may benefit from either psychotherapy, light therapy, antidepressants or a combination of them.
It may help if I explain the reason that depression is induced when one loses access to normal fun activities. Life is a difficult affair often filled with pain, anxiety and setbacks of every kind. Robert Frost’s poem “A Question” reads like this:
“A voice said, Look me in the stars,
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.”
In other words, Frost is admitting that life is filled with tragedy and exactly what do we get from living that makes it all worthwhile. This is a legitimate question and even harder to answer in the winter.
A long time ago psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud suggested that life is a tough affair and the best we can do is to find sublimations to help the cause. He said that we all have unacceptable urges based upon either anger or sexual desire. And if society is to survive these urges must be sublimated or channeled into something more acceptable.
One of the biggest problems people have in winter is that they have lost their typical sublimations. If you are mad at your husband, you cannot go out into the yard and channel your energy by making a nice garden. If you are angry at life in general, you do not have the chance to walk this off by hiking or hitting a golf ball.
Sublimation is one of the most mature defenses mankind has created to stay relatively sane and happy. But the problem arises in winter when the bulk of these sublimations are removed from us. Thus, we either resort to alcohol, food, angry outbursts or depression. Alcohol is dangerous, food causes weight gain, outbursts lead to divorce and depression is just as dangerous as the rest if not more so.
An alternative methodology and one I use with every athlete I treat is the defense called anticipation, which is another way to say plan for the problems before they arise so you can get ahead of them.
You may remember the incomparable singer/songwriter Carly Simon of the ’70s. Her most popular song was entitled “Anticipation” and it started like this: “We can never know about the days to come, but we think about them anyway…” Well, in the case of the winter blues, we in fact can anticipate the days to come. Winter produces depression due to the loss of our favorite sublimations. But that does not mean that all our sublimations are gone. There are many things to do which bring joy and which allows us to channel frustration.
Try reading Jack London’s existential masterpiece “To Build a Fire” and you will never find winter daunting again. The short story is set in the dark of winter in the frozen tundra of the Yukon, where there is no sunlight, the temperature is minus 75 degrees and where your spit freezes in mid-air.
And if you really want to get happy in the winter, build a fire in your fireplace, have a cup of tea and read “To Build a Fire” as you get warm. You can take a trip to New York City for dinner and a visit to Lincoln Center or MoMA or Carnegie Hall. Or you can take those art classes you have been putting off for the last 10 years. Join a book club or plan your next vacation.
The point is that one can anticipate that each winter produces the blues. And if that is true, you can anticipate this and plan on ways to get ahead of it so that it does not get you down. And as I write this, April 1 is a mere 38 days away and counting. Or as the Beatles once said: “Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say… it’s alright.”