My spirits would slide deeper into a blue funk and my anxiety ratchet up in direct correlation to every mile we got closer to West Point. The drive back after Christmas leave was always horrible. Thank God I only had to make that trip four times.
Winter at West Point…
We called the period from early January to spring the Gloom Period or the Dark Ages. Gone is the excitement of the football season. Gone too is all the splendor of the Hudson Highlands in autumn. The anticipation of the holidays and yearning for a visit home are a faint memory. Everything is grey – the sky, the buildings, the Hudson, our uniforms, and most especially our mood. Winter in that place is a palette of 51 shades of grey.
It was ground-zero for Seasonal Affective Disorder, which, ironically enough, is denoted by the acronym SAD. Ironic, huh???
As cadets, our duties and activities wouldn’t permit us to wallow in misery for very long. We were simply too busy and too physically active. Along with a bruising academic burden, there was boxing and wrestling, swimming and running, and a famously challenging indoor obstacle course that literally left us wheezing from the dust of the ancient gymnasium in which it was run.
Exercise as an antidote…
As it turns out, all that activity worked. It would seem that exercise has been shown to be an effective antidote to SAD.
SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Understandably, it is most prevalent during winter. It manifests with feelings of depression and gloom that match the darkness and dreariness of the season. We can experience a loss of energy and enthusiasm. Some experience a loss of appetite. Others crave carbohydrate-laden foods – comfort food. Some have trouble sleeping while others bunker down, avoid social contact, and hibernate. More pronounced cases may experience severe depression and mounting anxiety, even thoughts of suicide. SAD is more than just feeling a little glum. It is a real psychological condition that recurs with successive winters.
There are various treatments for SAD, ranging from medication to psychotherapy. Each has been shown to have differing degrees of efficacy.
The role of serotonin…
Because exercise induces the production of beneficial neurochemicals, our old friends – serotonin and dopamine, volumes of research have demonstrated its effectiveness as a treatment for SAD.
In fact, serotonin is the target of many of the common antidepressant medications. That class of drug is known as SSRI’s, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Essentially, these drugs boost the amount of serotonin we have available, producing a more balanced state of mind and sense of peace and contentment.
Unfortunately, for those suffering with SAD, exercising is often the last thing on earth they feel like doing. Its ability to alleviate those feelings of gloom and despondency aren’t relevant unless we can rally the energy and motivation to get moving.
That’s where our friends and loved ones can help. We can all use a battle-buddy, someone who’s there for us no matter what the circumstances. Support like that is priceless. If you suspect that someone you know and love is battling with SAD please encourage them to move. Invite them for a walk outside, especially if it’s sunny. Bring them to the gym with you. Find something to do that gets them to break the pattern of inertia that traps them in a rut of apathy and despair.
Below, I’ve highlighted a few other suggestions that might help. But, if you or someone you care about is mired in a persistent state of depression, seasonal or otherwise, please help them find care from a professional mental health caregiver.
Six things you can do to make this the best season ever:
- Get outside, especially when it’s sunny. Sunshine will produce Vitamins D which may ameliorate feelings of depression.
- Walk or run, or exercise vigorously for 20+ minutes, every day. A brisk walk will suffice. To a certain degree, more is better. While very few of us will exercise too much, yes, it’s certainly possible to have too much of a good thing. Listen to your body.
- Nature helps. A lot. Going for a walk in the woods, snowshoeing, skiing, or hiking in the woods has been shown to produce a measurable sense of peace of mind and improve our mood.
- Light therapy can help. This likely involves an investment in an indoor light box that produces 10,000 lux of cool white-fluorescent light, which is about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting. This is a great option for those who live in a place where there is insufficient sunlight outside.
- Take Vitamin D supplements or a daily multi-vitamin with adequate Vitamin D. This is only necessary for folks who aren’t getting enough direct sunlight to produce their own. The RDA for Vitamin D is 600 IU up to the age of 70 and then 800 IU over 70.
- Help someone else. Everyone is going through something. When we demonstrate empathy toward others and then take action to be of service to them, we experience a wonderful sense of gratification. That’s serotonin doing its job. It changes our perspective and diverts our inward attention that has been absorbed by our own misery. An act of kindness can not only make someone’s day, it can change their lives… and our own.