Thursday, January 20, 2011

Feeling S.A.D.?

These winter months are so dreary. As gardeners we experience these months as a time between other, better times. And it can get pretty bleak. But there could be more to that feeling of general malaise than just missing time with your plants.

Before moving to Sacramento, California, I spent most of my life living in the Pacific Northwest – a region known for its cloudy, rainy days. The higher longitude also meant that in the fall the days start getting much shorter much faster than they do down here in Sacramento and by December 21st the days are so short and so often dreary that you start to forget what it was like to see the sun shine.

There’s no other way to say it: it is depressing. The gloom, the snow, the slush, the fog, the cold, the lack of anything with color . . . it can all be soul-sucking even for those that don’t care about gardening and don’t need to get outside to enjoy their pastime. When I lived further north I hadn’t yet started to garden so I wasn’t confused about missing the joy gardening brings me now. But I did miss something. I attributed that feeling to not getting to play sports or go for hikes in the woods and, ultimately, a lack of exercise.

It took me a while to realize this, but it was likely that I was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Of course, being a typical male I never bothered going to a doctor for an official diagnosis so that is just my own WebMD-informed opinion.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, SAD is a “mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter . . . year after year.” The American Psychiatric Association notes that SAD has been linked to a “biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in the winter.” It’s also thought that a sleep-related hormone, melatonin, is associated with SAD. Melatonin has links to depression and it is produced at higher levels in the dark.

The United States National Library of Medicine says that people with SAD can exhibit symptoms including sleeping too much, having little energy, craving sweets and starchy foods. They might feel depressed too. It is estimated that half a million people in the United States suffer from winter-onset depression and that another 10% to 20% may experience mild SAD symptoms. In other regions of the world that are further from the equator, like the UK, as many as 1 in 50 people are believed to have SAD and 1 in 10 people living in the Netherlands are thought to suffer from SAD.

The good news is, for most people these symptoms clear up on their own when spring comes. In the meantime, if you think you might have SAD you can go to your doctor and inquire about treatments which typically range from simply trying to get out in the sun more, light therapy, psychotherapy sessions, and in more severe cases to taking medication.

Aside from any doctor-recommended treatments, here are a few activities you can try to see if they help pull you out of the annual “winter blues funk.” Even if you feel fine this winter you could try some of these options just to see if they make you feel even better than fine.

If you do have SAD, it’s likely that you live in an area where there aren’t many gardening activities you can do this time of year. But don’t let that stop you from going out in the garden anyway and soaking up some of those beneficial sun rays. Bundle up and go out for a stroll in the backyard.

Take a closer look at the way things look in the winter. It is a good time to take note of what is missing (evergreens perhaps?). Try to appreciate the naked form of the branches of your deciduous trees. Spend a few minutes studying the branches and note which ones should be trimmed when the time is right. Maybe even mark those branches with a garden tie so you can come back later.

Is there a nursery in your area that has an outdoor area you can visit? Why not take a trip there and spend some time wandering the aisles? You probably won’t want to buy any plants just yet, but it’s a good time to look for new tools, garden art or patio furniture especially since many places will offer these off-season items at steep discounts. Try going around noon to get the most sunlight possible. When you’re done, stop for a bite to eat and order some fish or something else that is high in Vitamin D.

If you can’t motivate yourself to go outside at all, you can try just sitting next to a bright window. Try looking at your garden from inside your cozy home and think about what you’d like to do with it in the spring. Take your time and soak in that light while you can.

Perhaps you have a hobby related to gardening that you could focus on and that would get you outside? For example, this winter I have committed to learning how to really use my digital camera. I’m going to take a one-day class and then try to be intentional about taking field trips to practice what I learn so that when spring comes I can finally take a decent macro shot of a cool bloom or a crisp photo of a bird perched in a far away tree.

These are just suggestions and they are by no means meant to replace the advice of a trained medical professional. The important thing to remember is that if you think you have SAD, you don’t have to suffer needlessly.

Follow your doctor’s orders, try these suggestions, think of your own ways to get out and enjoy the sunlight and maybe, just maybe, you can make winter a wonderful season again.

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