How To Thrive When Summer Turns to Fall (And Skip the Winter Blues)
by B. Imei Hsu, RN, LMHC, Artist
Every year in Seattle, it’s pretty much the same thing. We have a slow-to-warm up summer, which includes a rainy June and early July, followed by a spectacular summer without the extreme heat of the Southwest, and minus the uncomfortable humidity of the upper Northeast. By August, we’re sittin’ pretty! Yet, I know every Fall, right around mid-October, it feels as if a powerful Being reaches its hand over to the giant light source in the sky, and pulls a metal chain. Lights out! The chill in the air, which develops slowly over the preceding weeks, triggers locals to pull out their jackets and windbreakers. A few people jump the gun and start wearing warm boots. People stumble around with a bleary-eyed, caffiene-enhanced expression, mixed with a depressed slump in the shoulders. The rustle of leaves and the waning light signal the end of summer, and I can literally hear people groan about it. Instead of groaning and complaining, make a commitment this year to prepare for the change in weather. Learn how to thrive when Summer turns to Fall, and skip past the Winter Blues.
“Why Do I Feel So Blah?”
Before you think all those feelings of sluggishness and dread of the cold and rainy season are only “in your head”, do take time to make sure that feeling of dragging yourself out of bed that comes with a change of season is not caused by a biological or physical source. People who live in cities and stay indoors during most of the year may have Vitamin D deficiency, with at least two of the symptoms being depressed mood and fatigue. If you’ve recently changed your caffeine intake to reflect the change in weather, remember that while caffeine may give you an initial energy boost, it won’t sustain that boost for long. Your blah feeling may be a drop in blood sugar after a caffeinated jolt. Of course, arising early for work when it is dark outside, working in a corporate office without natural lighting, and returning home after the sun has set can increase your feelings of “blah-ness” [<–I think blahness should be used as a descriptive term for medical charting, since so many of my clients like to use this word].
The first thing you need to do is admit that you feel “blah”, and do a little research into the past few years to see if there is a seasonal pattern for the onset of “blah” as well as the remission of “blah”. If you have more serious symptoms that follow a seasonal pattern AND those symptoms disappear when treated with a UV light source, you likely have some level of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and this is an entirely treatable mood disorder*. For the rest of us who only feel “blah” — that is, you’re fairly functional when the weather changes, you feel like you are dragging yourself around for a few weeks, and then you manage to make an adjustment usually not requiring the use of antidepressants – you likely need to do just a little bit of preparation to minimize your “down time” and adjust to a fabulous Fall and Winter ahead.
Winterize Your Life, Not Just Your Car
I just used a Groupon to “winterize” my car. That included a check on anti-freeze levels, the effectiveness of the windshield wipers, the condition of the tread on my car, and the usual tune up plus lube and oil service. If you winterize your car without having to debate the positive effects of doing so, why wouldn’t you consider winterizing your life as well?
Folks on a part of the East Coast got a surprise last week when unusually cold weather arrived early, dumping under a foot of snow on their cars and sidewalks. I’m sure everyone dove for their hats, gloves, and coats! When you think about winterizing your life, what adjustments will you need to make?
Here’s my personal checklist of activities I employ to “winterize” my life:
[ ] Move 60% of my exercise activities from outdoors to indoors [gym, dance sessions, treadmill, etc]
[ ] Schedule 40% of my exercise outside in natural light, even if it’s grey, cold, or lightly raining
[ ] Prepare winter sports gear for use, to anticipate cold weather rather than cringe at its arrival (like snowboarding and skiing)
[ ] Increase my indoor cardio exercise by 20% to make up for the decrease in everyday walking I do outdoors during fair weather seasons
[ ] Re-calibrate vitamins and supplements to adjust for season foods not available after Fall, such as certain fruits or vegetables
[ ] test Vitamin D levels at my next doctor visit
[ ] schedule UV exposure throughout the Fall/Winter months (light box or tanning booth with UV levels posted)
[ ] move my office desk closer to the window for natural light exposure
[ ] add more lights to the office [ ] run errands mid-day to catch some light
[ ] drinking plenty of warm fluids and water
[ ] limiting exposure to sick people (colds and flus)
[ ] schedule vacation time in a sunny climate mid-winter
[ ] restricting or limiting high fat, high sugar foods (many of which encourage blood sugar drops that take time to recover from)
[ ] monitor my thinking for signs and symptoms of depression
[ ] schedule enjoyable social activities to prevent “caving” (staying in bed all day, eating junk food, acting like a couch potato, etc)
[ ] use a humidifier at night (for dry climates with forced heat)
[ ] wear more clothing to sleep at night, especially wearing socks and covering the shoulders to encourage restful sleep
[ ] adding about 15-20 minutes more time for getting up in the morning, getting ready, and for going to bed (until the body transitions to weather changes)
Additionally, some people are very sensitive to the changes in the barometer. A fast-dropping barometric pressure can register as ear drum discomfort and sinus pain. Your doctor may prescribe some medication for the discomfort. Take it easy when blowing your nose!
Keep Doing What You Love
When a fellow dancer in my community was diagnosed with breast cancer, she gathered many of us for support. One of her messages of inspiration and strength emphasized how important it was for her to continue dancing as much as she could tolerate because the Dance itself gave her energy to continue in her battle after undergoing a mastectomy and chemotherapy. While I’m sure she had her up and down days, she never appeared to suffer from depression. She has returned to dance and yoga, and she’s as vibrant as ever.
As the light fades and the weather turns cold, it is important to keep doing what you love, what inspires you, and what continues to return energy and vitality to you. If you exercise frequently, keep exercising. Switch from one kind of movement to another if your sport is an outdoor one. Use technology to help enhance your experience, such as cycling on a trainer while watching scenes from other parts of the world. If you attend music concerts and shows during the summer, build it into your social activities to continue attending them indoors. It might mean that you will need to learn how to engage in those activities when the weather isn’t very nice out. I personally have been reading articles on how to have wet-weather runs that don’t feel so miserable; I intend to keep up with my training pattern to complete a first half marathon, and the best realistic training for long runs happen on real hills, streets, trails, and roads. I’ve never owned so much high-tech fabric shorts, pants, jackets, and gloves ever [I’m eying a tech-fabric beanie for the months when the temps go below 30F, bra]! Yet I know that just like you, if I keep doing what I love, Fall will rush to Winter, and Winter will melt into Spring without the disappointing dip of sluggishness and “blah” that you would usually experience if you did nothing to prepare yourself for the seasonal change.
As for myself, I welcome the change in seasons. While I’m sad to see the sunshine wane, I also look forward to all the fun things Fall and Winter have to offer. One of the activities I look forward to is the Thrill the World Thriller Dance day, with one of the performance sites held right behind my office building (October 27, 2012 at noon). Not only is it fun to participate in a world-record breaking attempt, it’s great exercise, a fun community-building activity, and a nifty way to participate in an annual holiday event like Halloween. I’ll also be running in a few Fall/Winter events that have costuming and activities planned with the races, many of which raise money for a variety of charitable causes.
What do you do to feel great during the Fall and Winter cold months? Feel free to share your comments. Did I miss anything? Be sure to add anything you feel that I’ve missed, and I’ll edit and add it to the article. We welcome your feedback to share information that helps us experience superior mental wellness all-year around.
* I highly recommend that you seek professional help to receive testing for symptoms of SAD and start treatment before your symptoms worsen. People with SAD learn to treat their symptoms by the calendar year versus waiting for a seasonally-triggered depression to overtake them, but I suspect they do so because they have experienced the painful suffering of delaying care after repeating this pattern a few too-many times. Treatment includes light box therapy and a course of anti-depressant medication, as well as a boost of omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are prescribed under the care of a physician. Please note: I am not a physician and this article does not serve as a replacement for responsible medical care. Consult your doctor to receive appropriate care.