Fighting off the chill

WEST MICHIGAN — Week nine: Morale low. Crew losing hope. Have tried leaving confinement, little success. Wind almost froze off my nose. Went back inside. Tried to write. Little success. Attempted to sleep. No luck. Must hope frozen wastes will melt soon. Outcome unclear. Ship likely to sink soon.

While those words may sound dramatic, something you’d find in a pirate captain’s log book or journal, they aren’t too far off from what many Michiganders are feeling these days, as winter continues to drag on.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a serious problem, especially for northern residents. The “winter blues” don’t just have to be a part of this time of year, though. Simple changes can make a huge difference in easing the problem.

According to the Mayo Clinic, factors causing SAD can include a disrupted biological clock (circadian rhythm) from the reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter, or drops in serotonin levels, a brain chemical which affects mood that can also be affected by reduced sunlight. Disrupted melatonin levels can also play a role in sleep patterns and mood.

“SAD is a mild form of depression,” said Denise Mitten, Ph.D., a former Ferris State University faculty member and current Graduate Chair of Adventure Education at Prescott College in Arizona. “In northern climates especially, people don’t get enough light to influence their happy hormones.”

Sandra Wright, a worker at The Herb Shoppe, LLC in Big Rapids, agreed.

“It’s a form of depression,” she explained. “With any kind of the depression, the way you’re going to try and overcome it has more to do what brought that depression on in the first place. The bad weather, the long winter, it just brings the sadness out that much more. Usually there is some sort of underlying situation that brings that on.”

But what to do when this extreme form of “Cabin Fever” takes over?

Mitten, who has authored many articles about nature and human health and who also is expecting to have a book come out later this year, said the easiest thing to do about SAD is to simply go outside.

“Throughout our history as humans, our brains have evolved in the natural environment — in nature,” she said. “When we’re outside, we’re in our natural environment. This allows us to rest our cognitive brain. When we’re looking around, when we’re moving, we’re relaxing our brains. It helps us think better.

“In older times, humans used to walk 12 miles a day,” she added. “They still had plenty of time to do other things. We’re basically built to be happy and thinking better when we’re outside.”

Taking preventative steps to decrease the chance of acquiring SAD in the first place are fundamental to being healthy and happy, Wright said.

The steps to overcoming SAD, and mild depression in general, start with identifying the areas of life that are lacking and taking actions to supplement those needs.

“There are a lot of little things you do to help yourself,” Wright said. “The big thing involves the kind of foods we eat. If you add some color to your plate, get those good vegetables and fruits in there, that’ll help. Less carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates, will also help. A little bit of protein helps bring on brain chemicals so your mood goes up a bit.”

Since everyone is different, it is important to be aware of what you, specifically, need to improve.

“Some people might want to try a mood elevator, something like St. John’s Wort,” Wright said. “For others, it might be a sleep problem — if you don’t get a good sleep, you’ll go down. There’s also color therapy. Even the colors that you wear can make a difference on what your mood is.”

Both experts agree, however, that reconnecting with the human tendency to be outside is essential to staving off SAD. While light therapy and prescription drugs may ultimately be needed, starting out as naturally as possible can do wonders for many people who are suffering with SAD or the beginnings of SAD.

“Just letting the mind daydream is helpful,” Mitten said. “If you can’t get outside, you can use nature pictures or simply look outside. It certainly can’t hurt to try naturally. There are no side-effects.”

“Get a little exercise,” agreed Wright. “Don’t let stuff just sit inside of you. Move around.”

Although getting up and exercising in subzero temperatures might sound horrible, especially from the comfort of a nice warm bed, Mitten suggests to do it anyway.

“Bundle up. It really is good to be outside,” she said. “While inside, jump rope, do something to get the blood flowing before you dress up. Do that before you go outside, and you won’t feel the initial cold. That’s something that turns a lot of people off when going outside, but you don’t have to have that uncomfortable feeling.”