Shine a light: an article about Seasonal Affective Disorder

Two hands making a heart-shape framing the sunset

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression, in which the onset is related to changes in seasons. Symptoms commonly start in the fall and continue through the winter months, due to declining daylight hours and temperature, sapping your energy, turning your body into a bag of bricks and giving you the “winter blues”, to put it lightly.

The TCM approach is unique and relevant as it takes many of its cues from the season and changes in climate that we live in. The dark of winter, especially our dreary, rainy west coast winters align at this time of year with the “Water element”. Water being the most yin of the 5 elements (Earth > Metal > Water > Wood > Fire), it is associated with coldness, low energy, darkness and a natural tendency of our energy to turn inwards. The ancient founding texts of Chinese Medicine, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine” states, “In winter, all is hidden”. You will observe in the natural world, that winter is a time of rest, an opportunity to replenish itself for the upcoming rise of energy in the spring. In turn, this is a time of year for introspection, rest, rebuilding and embracing the darkness. It is only natural to succumb to the desire to lie low.

Here are 3 different approaches from your H&H acupunks on their personal preferences for addressing the seasonal blues.

Veronica’s approach

Embrace the season. Fall is here and winter is coming. It’s darker and colder but this will pass eventually! Instead of wishing away the days, find some things you’re excited about this season and a few things you’re happy to say goodbye to from summer. For many people, the end of summer means feeling less obligated to participate in social events and means an easier time sleeping without the heat. Fall has ushered in a season of coziness and an opportunity to create more light and brightness of your own making: curling up with a book, lighting a candle, having friends over for a potluck, etc.

Change your pace to match the season. A lot of us lead very busy lives with little space for wiggle room, but is there any way you can slow down your pace? Can you give up an obligation or two so you can slow down, have more down time and less rushing around? The energy of the season is moving inwards, and we can match that inward shift. Our energy is more limited in the cooler seasons, so it benefits us to be careful about how and what we are investing that energy into. Check in with yourself about this and make shifts that feel good for you.

Consider making dietary changes that match the seasonal changes we see around us. If we look at what is growing locally on Vancouver Island, the majority of things are vegetables that are best cooked. The Root Cellar is a great place to visit to pick up lots of different veggies on a budget; their ‘Dirt Cheap this Week’ sales are a great place to start when trying new veggies on a budget. Lots of root vegetables, including beets, potatoes, onions and carrots are in season. Roasting these veggies makes them easy for our body to digest when our digestive energy not as strong. Grab a few turnips, beets, onions, sweet potatoes, and carrots to roast. It’s easy to prepare and using a few different types of vegetables gives your body a variety of nutrients. If you’re feeling sick, try blending roasted veggies into a soup. Swiss chard and kale are also growing now and are delicious when sauteed. Put a pause on the cold smoothies (especially if you are incorporating things like raw kale and carrots) for a few months until the weather warms up and our digestive fire is once again at its peak. Drink lots of warming teas (like ginger tea) to benefit digestion and stay hydrated.

Come get acupuncture ! Acupuncture has incredible benefits for mental health, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. In addition, it is so helpful if you find yourself feeling like you’re in a rut, like you’re getting easily irritated by other people or as though it’s hard for you to break your own patterns. Heart & Hands facilitates a really wonderful community atmosphere where you are surrounded by other people who are committed to feeling better. If you struggle with anxiety, as many of us do, feeling like you’re part of a group in this way (without necessarily having to talk to anyone else!) can be a really nice way to remind you that you’re part of a caring community.

Susan’s approach

Feel your feelings. If you are tired, and bummed out, then feel that. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. There is never anything wrong with you. It sucks to feel bad, but it is an essential part of being human. Don’t take it so personally. Be curious about it. Notice how things change. The trick is to not get caught in those feelings. Feel them, but don’t believe the stories you tell yourself to justify those feelings you are having. This is obviously way more easily said than done.

Practicing mindfulness or meditation can be helpful in learning how to parse apart our feelings, the stories we tell ourselves, and what is really going on. It doesn’t always make the lethargy, negative thoughts, and hopeless of depression go away, but it can make them more manageable. There are classes and retreats, but a simple way to get into it (and stay with it) is using one of the many apps dedicated to mindfulness or meditation. Insight Timer is a popular, easy to use and has a lot of choices.

Change your expectations. Winter is not summer. You will feel different.

Move your body. Eat good food (see Stefanie’s advice). Notice the things that overall make you feel not so bad and do more of that. Don’t beat yourself up; practice self-compassion, is a great resource. It has exercises, guided meditations, and research showing all the great stuff self-compassion can do for us. Spend time with people you like spending time with. Get outside. Find some trees or a body of water. Breath. Take hot baths. Let yourself rest when you can.

Notice the moments. Appreciate the ones you can. Ask for help when you need it. Come get pokes. Let yourself feel the feels.

Christina’s Approach

Our bodies during this distinct change in
daylight hours and climate will consume more energy and calories to keep you warm. Your body’s thermostat originates in the Kidney organ and specifically, Kidney yang, which functions as your furnace and in the west coast chill, it can work over time. I like to think of Kidney yang synonymous with thyroid-adrenal function, which regulates your metabolism and specifically, body heat and stamina/energy levels. Weakness of Kidney yang can result in a plethora of symptoms including sensitivity to cold + cold extremities, lumbar weakness, weak, dull hair and finger nails and restless sleep and mood. Therefore, in our damp-cold climate, this is an important time of year to protect your Kidney yang. Here are some suggestions:

  • Dress for the weather: Keep vulnerable parts including your ankles/calves, neck/chest and flanks (home of Kidneys) covered to prevent excessive loss of your precious yang. This is also the time of year to avoid going outside with wet hair!
  • Thyroid/adrenal supportive foods: include seafood, homemade liver pate, organic eggs, sea veggies, good fats (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts) to provide all the necessary trace nutrients for their healthy function and maintenance of temperature regulation and metabolism;
  • Vitamin D3 drops: with shorter days & winter clothing, there is less sun exposure, take your liquid sunshine for optimism & supporting immunity;
  • Embrace the Nordic tradition of “Hygge” (pronouced “hooga”): as per Susan’s suggestion, spend meaningful cozy time, be social or not, be productive or not, but the key is to stay warm and comfortable and sync up with the flow of the season, which is low and quiet and to be introspective and observant with what is happening around you;
  • The warming TCM tradition of moxabustion: the igniting of the herb “Artemesia vulgaris” and warming specific acupoints on the body. It is said that only a few things can regenerate Kidney yang and moxabustion is extremely helpful for this process. So, take our Moxa 101 workshop!

Hopefully, this information sheds so light on this dark time of year.
We wish you warmth, health and coziness :)

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