Therapy and Theology for Seasonal Affective Disorder

When people ask me my favorite season of the year, I tend to pause for a time and then respond with hesitation, “Spring or fall.”  But the truth is that autumn – while gorgeous in the northern part of Indiana where I live – also brings about an increasing, nagging sense of trepidation, because I know that winter is forthcoming.  And with winter comes the interior struggle: difficulty getting up in the morning, a psychological heaviness accompanied by  discouragement and frustration, and the desire to become a recluse until the spring thaw.

Many of us begin to experience what is commonly known as “the winter blues” or “winter depression” when the days become shorter and the nights longer.  Properly termed Seasonal Affective Disorder, this is a form of dysthymia (low-grade depression) directly related to the changing seasons, particularly as winter approaches.  Some have the desire to hibernate all winter, sleeping excessively or at least becoming sleepier for longer periods of time.  Appetites may become heartier and geared more toward carbohydrates.  Loss of interest in our hobbies and relationships may slowly creep in as winter approaches.

Those of us who suffer from winter-onset S.A.D. dread the end of autumn, because we know we will hit a really rough time of struggling to make it through the long, dark, frigid months of winter (which are particularly difficult in the northern states), but we aren’t always certain why our moods are cyclic with the seasons and how we can remedy them to a homeostatic level.

The good news is that S.A.D. is highly treatable, and here are some basic tips on how to get through that emotional slump as the season of hibernation draws near.  It’s important to note that S.A.D., like all diagnosable psychological conditions, is also physiological in nature.  So treating the bodily symptoms, as well as hanging on to some spiritual wisdom and hope, can get you on the right path toward balance and restoration.

Talk to your doctor about light therapy and Vitamin D3 supplementation.

One of the most obvious reasons we get the winter blues is that our bodies aren’t receiving enough Vitamin D3 from natural sunlight, which results in lower serotonin production.  As a result, depressed mood sets in and may continue until you receive the proper dose of Vitamin D3.

Phototherapy (light therapy) can substantially improve the symptoms of S.A.D., as can a supplement of Vitamin D3.  In some extreme cases, medication may be necessary, so it’s important to discuss what is right for you with your physician.

Find encouragement in the Psalms.

Many people in my life have attempted to pull me out of the winter doldrums with humor or an irritating platitude, such as, “Cheer up!  Everything is going to be okay.”  Really?  Do people actually believe these sorts of things work?  I happen to believe they do not.

But what has helped me spiritually more times than I can count is turning to Scripture, especially the Psalms, which are so encouraging to me.  It’s not so much a saccharine cheerfulness but an honesty about suffering that ends with hope – always hope – that somehow lifts my spirits when all else seems dark, lonely, and long.

The lamentations in the Psalms have always been some of my favorites for this very reason.  Some have mentioned to me that they feel as if the Psalms are depressing parts of Scripture, and they’d rather gloss over them.  I couldn’t disagree more.  To me, the Psalms are prayers of desperation, praise, frustration, and loneliness that are nudging the soul to look Heavenward – to never give up, to remember that God journeys with us in our darkest moments, and to offer our sufferings to and for Him.

Hope is the message of the Psalms that firmly-yet-lovingly grips my heart so that, when I am inclined to despair, the Holy Spirit reminds me of that glimmer of light that still exists and that I know I will once again see someday.

When we are suffering from seasonal depression, it’s important for us to focus our hearts on that hope every day, and the Psalms are a perfect place to begin that journey.

Consider the importance of winter and appreciate its beauty.  

When I was a little girl, winter came in as a close second to my favorite season of summer for obvious reasons: summer, because school was out for several months (and I could go swimming and ride my bike every day), and winter because of the spontaneous excitement of snow days and the subsequent building of snowmen and creating snow angels in the front yard.  Once I learned how to drive, however, winter became more hazardous than amusing.  Since adolescence, the joy associated with winter slowly eroded, and I eventually came to hate it altogether.

That is, until recently.  I was sitting in our rural home two winters ago when we (along with half of the country) were blasted with one of the iciest, coldest fronts in quite some time, and I was immersed in all the self-piteous inner dialogue of why I couldn’t wait for winter to end.  Then suddenly I looked up from our dining room table, which faces south, and I noticed the outline of ice along every detail of the black walnut and maple trees lining our front sidewalk.  With the early morning sunlight grazing each branch, the trees became gorgeous icons of refracted light, and that perspective changed a lot for me.  In that moment, I suddenly realized I had missed out on the beauty – and necessity – of winter.

So I pondered that for a bit, and it occurred to me that winter can speak so much to the interior life, especially if we are feeling down.  All seems lost and dead if we offer a mere glance at what winter shows us, and we believe that there is no life (e.g., no hope) in the silence of darkness, which covers our part of the planet for most of the day and night.  Yet underneath the snow and ice, new life is forming slowly but steadily.  That life is nurtured by the warm womb of the Earth, though it is invisible to the human eye.

Winter teaches us that we must have faith beyond what we can see.  Our belief must extend to the God of mystery who enshrouds us in darkness for a time so that we, too, can become more than who we once were or even are today.  Winter becomes a metaphor of greatness for us, and if we can cling to that when we are losing the light of hope during this seemingly interminable season, we will emerge verdant and vibrant when spring arrives.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is our wintertime of spirit, yet it is a great teacher that illuminates the cold, dreary days and dark, icy nights of our hearts.  While we prepare to enter the winter months, let us wait with God quietly and patiently, allowing Him to prune us for the joy of spring and of our Resurrection with Him.

By

Jeannie Ewing believes the world focuses too much on superficial happiness and then crumbles when sorrow strikes.  Because life is about more than what makes us feel fuzzy inside, she writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief.  Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers and is the author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to TriumphJeannie was featured on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and dozens of other radio shows and podcasts For more information, please visit her websites lovealonecreates.com or fromgrief2grace.com. Follow Jeannie on social media:  Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Pinterest

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  • John Keating

    This was really good and helpful. Thank you so much for your care, attention and kindness and presenting all the different ways that help can be found. My doctor told me a couple years ago that I might have SAD and I have found that supplements and using my Phillips light have been a big help, but I never considered the mind-set or theologie ideas that you wrote about. Good to know, and I’ll come back to this article.

  • AMDG

    Wow! I don’t think I have SAD, but it wouldn’t surprise me. All the same, when I lived in Connecticut, I remember freaking out about winter the moment the tress started changing. If I had Seasonal afffectve disorder, it was cured by moving to Texas (and you all should think about it!). Still, this would have been a big help when I had to endure White Witch’s Narnia while Conn was being frigid.

  • Dorothy

    Just what I needed! Thanks for writing, Miss Ewing, and thanks to CE for publishing it! You all have no clue how helpful you are. I’m amazed that you know just what to publish. Does that mean you take suggestions? If so, I do have a few but I’m sure the editors and writers here would get sick of hearing from me…

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Dorothy, you are welcome to comment and leave suggestions, if that’s helpful. However, I do indeed love to hear from readers. Do please feel free to drop me an email at editor@catholicexchange.com if I can ever be of help and especially if you would like to suggest articles or subjects we can cover. We are here to help and be a service to the Church, and I take that duty quite seriously.

    As well, please do feel free to email. I may not always answer in a timely manner as I’m quite busy, but I do read every email and it’s a joy to hear from folks.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    I’m in New Hampshire. I understand! I would move to Texas, as I think San Antonio is a beautiful city and I’m even one of those weird guys who likes some parts of Dallas! But, that said, Providence has me in New Hampshire and so I get to experience all four seasons with great intensity.

  • pnyikos

    I purposely took my first sabbatical so I would be in New Hampshire in the autumn, for the most gorgeous fall colors I could imagine. Down here in South Carolina, we have to drive up to the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway, at least three hours away, to experience anything close to it. I suppose one can get blase about New Hampshire autumns after a couple of decades, but I doubt that I’ll get away to New England often enough for that.

    On the other hand, while I was there, a friend there told me that there are five New Hampshire seasons: winter, the mud season, spring, July, and autumn. He didn’t sound too happy about the mud season.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Autumn in New Hampshire is unbelievable and I am always delighted by the season. I didn’t even mind the winter at first, but the last two have been especially brutal. Then, I guess there are joys and gripes wherever you live. But, yes, the Autumn is like something out of a painting and I’ve never experienced anything like it. Did you happen by the Robert Frost farm or Laconia Notch? They are especially nice right now.

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