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Keep the winter blues at bay: Bolstering those anti-gloom defenses in Pacific Northwest's SAD season

Columbian - 11/18/2023

Nov. 18—Kim Schneiderman knows just what to do when seasonal gloom closes in on her.

Eat healthy food. Visit with friends. Do something good for others. Turn on some lively, positive music and bounce around the house.

"Music is very important," said Schneiderman, whose favorite singer is upbeat reggae-rapper Michael Franti. Franti's signature warm-sand-between-your-toes tunes, like "The Sound of Sunshine" and "Brighter Day," always put spring back into slow, sad, wintertime steps, she said.

"If I'm in a really bad mood, I put on some really good reggae music, and it just turns the whole day around," she said.

A great groove is one way Pacific Northwesterners can dance away winter blues, Schneiderman said. She's the executive director of the Southwest Washington chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots agency that provides peer support, education and advocacy for individuals and families dealing with mental health issues.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may officially be over, Schneiderman said, the related uptick in calls to NAMI never dropped back down. Many people still struggle with associated feelings of loss, anguish and anxiety, she said.

How to get help

National Alliance on Mental Illness-Southwest Washington offers local support groups and programs: 360-695-2823 or namiswwa.org

Warning signs of suicide

— Talking about:

Wanting to die

Great guilt or shame

Being a burden to others

— Feeling:

Empty, hopeless, trapped or having no reason to live

Extremely sad, more anxious, agitated or full of rage

Unbearable emotional or physical pain

— Changing behavior, such as:

Making a plan or researching ways to die

Withdrawing from friends, saying goodbye, giving away important items, making a will

Taking dangerous risks such as driving extremely fast

Displaying extreme mood swings

Eating or sleeping more or less

Using drugs or alcohol more often

— What to do:

Do not leave the person alone

Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt

Call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988

— Source: National Institute of Mental Health

"The pandemic and all the isolation we went through ... (made) people more introspective," she said. "They notice their feelings more."

Feeling our way through another dim, wet winter is going to be tough. Here's our guide to bolstering your upper-left-coast, anti-gloom defenses.

Watch what you eat

Go easy on processed foods, alcohol and sweets. Don't neglect fruits and vegetables, where essential vitamins and fiber hide out.

"Staying away from junk food is imperative because that stuff will not make you feel good," Schneiderman said. "Give yourself what you really need. Don't drink a whole bottle of wine at night."

An immune system fueled by healthy food is primed to protect you. An immune system saturated with fat, sugar and booze may not be. In addition to causing weight gain, diets high in fat and processed foods spark inflammation throughout the body as well as bacterial gut issues, degrading immune health and leading to chronic problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Exercise, exercise

It's the most unwelcome nag of all: You've simply got to move. Health experts call exercise the first line of defense against depression.

Hate the very idea? Start off slowly. Even a few minutes per day can start making a difference, both in fitness and in feelings.

Find an activity you'll stick with. That might be walking or jogging (around your living room, down your block or along that trail you've always been curious about). It might be dancing (at home to Michael Franti, or along with others at the community center or health club). It might be raking leaves into a pile — and jumping in!

Exercise doesn't just tune up the body, it also lifts moods by releasing hormones that dull pain and promote feelings of well-being and pleasure.

Stay social

Exercise can be meditation in motion — withdrawing from stresses, spending quiet time with your own mind — but exercising with buddies builds friendships while building your routine.

Isolation and loneliness have reached epidemic proportions in modern America, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, with real and grave health effects like increased heart disease, diabetes, depression, dementia and early death.

"Having nobody to talk to can be very depressing," Schneiderman said. "It's so important to have community."

Live videoconferencing on platforms like Zoom was the welcome surprise of the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping even the most isolated people connected with family and friends, clubs and congregations, not to mention doctors and therapists.

Videoconferencing remains a lifesaver for people still avoiding crowds. Meanwhile, The Columbian's events calendar and websites like Meetup.com are excellent resources for finding the outing or hobby group that's right for you, be it a crafting workshop, archaeology lecture, ballroom dancing primer or "Sassy Bingo" session at a downtown tavern.

Lower expectations

Unless you're living in a Hallmark TV special, the holiday season tends to be tough.

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"People have such high expectations" for family harmony at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Schneiderman said. "Rarely are those expectations met. Sometimes good enough is good enough." Let go of holiday perfectionism, she said.

Instead, ask your loved ones and friends how they're really doing — and really listen to the answers.

Young people are feeling especially fragile these days, she said, and they need to be heard and respected.

"They see what kind of world they are inheriting," she said. "They are very engaged in politics, the climate, social justice. We're going to see that around the holidays, when everyone is together. Are the grown-ups around the table valuing what our youth have to say?"

Don't doomscroll

Kudos to you for being a news consumer. Now, cut that out.

"We have a very unstable world right now," Schneiderman said. "It is not a happy time."

If current events drive your anxiety, there's no shame in undertaking a media diet. We're all so conditioned to grab for our phones and stare at screens. Try turning your device off for a stretch. Savor and nurture the freedom. If you must have a media replacement, try music or an audiobook. Even better, start a hobby or double down on the one you already love.

Check out www.wikihow.com/Limit-Social-Media-and-Internet-Use for detailed guidance on rescuing your life from habitual media bombardment.

Help others

One of the best ways to stave off gloom is by making somebody else happy — especially somebody who's in genuine need.

"Volunteering is great," Schneiderman said. "It promotes such positivity. Especially for seniors, it can give purpose in life."

Search the internet and you'll find no shortage of places to volunteer — schools, libraries, hospitals, hospice, Clark County Food Bank, the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Volunteering doesn't just provide social connection; it can satisfy one's hunger to contribute something good to a world in need.

"People who are engaged, people who are helping to make change — they're the ones who have balance in their lives," Schneiderman said.

Seek light

People need light. Winter in the Pacific Northwest provides precious little of it.

The annual November switch from daylight saving to standard time, erasing an hour of evening light but adding an hour of morning light, sure seems like it ought to jolt our waking-up brains with a bracing dose of good cheer. Alas, we live in a region where winter morning light is usually about as dull as proverbial dishwater. Isn't that SAD?

SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of clinical depression linked to the amount and quality of light we absorb. SAD isn't just "winter blues," although it can start out seeming that way. It's a diagnosable condition characterized by familiar depressive symptoms: loss of joy, energy and interest, under- or over-sleeping, overeating, social withdrawal.

For most sufferers, SAD arrives in late fall or early winter as the world goes dim. People who live close to Earth's equator, where they're exposed to plentiful sunshine, don't suffer nearly as much SAD as people who live farther away, under gloomier skies. Lucky us, huh?

Schneiderman is an example of someone who feels SAD coming on every fall, regular as clockwork and long before daylight saving time deprivation, she said.

She combats the onset of SAD with light that's beyond simply bright. It's actually artificial sunshine.

Standard home and office lighting usually tops out at 500 to 800 lux (a standard measure of brightness). SAD-specific lamps and light boxes crank out 10,000 lux, which is about as bright as outdoor light on a clear day, and emphasize the natural white-blue rays of morning.

"I have my two cups of coffee and I read The Columbian or something, and I just relax in front of that light," Schneiderman said. "I start about a month before the time change. It's not like you're taking a pill and it just works. It takes time to develop. If you wait too long, it's not as effective."

Because super-bright light can have side effects, talk to your doctor about SAD before exposing yourself to 10,000 lux.

Seek help

If reaching out for help has even crossed your mind, Schneiderman said, that means you shouldn't hesitate any longer.

"A lot of folks are carrying around a lot of baggage, and unfortunately there's still stigma attached to that," she said. "If you're suffering, it's time to talk to someone. There's no point to suffering in silence."

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