It’s January. Christmas is over. New Years is past. The days are short, the weather cold. With much of winter yet ahead and the overwhelming urge to remain indoors in the warmth, physical exercise is not foremost on most people’s agendas. Crawling back into bed is a lot more appealing, this time of year.
What some are experiencing at this time, physicians call “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or SAD. It is a form of depression that affects countless individuals annually. Lethargy, listlessness, lack of motivation, sadness, overwhelmedness, fatigue, and crankiness/annoyance include some of the more common symptoms of SAD. Although it often appears during the winter months, it can occur any time of the year, and often recurs seasonally.
What to do?
There are several helpful solutions, any combination of which may be helpful. But the one I want to focus on here, involves Mindfulness Meditation. (Note that additional suggestions will follow at the end of my blog.)
Like the name suggests, Mindfulness Meditation involves purposeful, intentional placement of one’s thoughts on one certain area of focus. During times of depression, the mind naturally, effortlessly slips into a state of reflection on past failures, hurts, and disappointments. As such, it paints the future black, dashing hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Thought patterns are reflective of a vortex, spiraling down, down, down. At Canada’s Wonderland, there is roller coaster ride called The Vortex. Once on the ride, there is only one way to the end: spiraling down, down, down (in sheer terror, I might add!). Likewise, during depression, thoughts easily strap themselves into the ride that leads nowhere good, nowhere positive, nowhere hopeful.
What will break the cycle? What can pluck your thoughts from the dreaded vortex?
Mindfulness Meditation. It’s no great trick, really. It’s not rocket science. But it works like magic. Why? Because Mindfulness Meditation involves seating your thoughts in the present moment only.
Start by selecting something that exists right now, in the present. I often select my breath, because breathing is something that I do, moment by moment, every second of every day. It’s always there as my companion, on which to focus. Alternatively, you may choose to focus on things in nature if you are out on a walk. Or if you are inside, so you could decide to focus on the colours in the room. Whatever it is, it needs to be before you in the present moment, so you can focus in on it. As you zero in on it, you will immediately notice your focus wanting to lift off and take flight onto something else. This is natural, and a sign that you are normal.
As soon as you notice that your thoughts have left your chosen point of focus, gently and lovingly bring your thoughts back again. Explore the item of your focus (your breath, or the smells or sounds of nature, or the colours in the room….). Each time your thoughts escape, lovingly bring them back, without self-reproach for having allowed them to wander. There is no room for disdain, self-reproach, or self-loathing. In this place called the present, there is only acceptance. Accept what is. Love what is. Embrace what is. Feel the breath go in and out. Observe the smells. Whatever your object of focus is, simply allow it to be, with no judgments.
If you can only do this for 2 minutes, fine. If you can then return and do this for 5 minutes, great. If you can go on to 10 minutes or longer, all the better, but accept whatever it turns out to be. Explore beyond your breath as time passes. Focus gradually on each aspect of your body, from your head to your toes, gently bringing back your focus to your body every time it wants to float off. Or gradually focus on different aspects of nature you see and hear and smell and feel, if you are out walking.
For whatever length of time you have done this, you have just successfully trained your thoughts. This is the new platform from which future successes will springboard. The old is gone, the new has come. The new is always there, available to you, every time you bring your focus back to that which is in the present, in loving embrace of it.
Moreover, you have just provided much needed relief from the torment where your thoughts would have otherwise spent their time: the past, or the future. The past has some value when we glance at it for cues on how to improve things for the future. But sadly, during depression, the past becomes a hitching post for perpetual lashings and cruelty by none other than ourselves. The past is meant to be a lamp post to guide us toward a wise and better future, and nothing more.
During Mindfulness Meditation, your thoughts are also prevented from dwelling in the future, that place where there is the anticipation of dreaded events that depression tries to serve up to you. Anxiety plays richly on minds which linger in the future. But when meditating on those things that are in the present, thoughts are existing in the beauty of present reality. The future is not real; it has not yet happened, and any amount of rehearsing all the various combinations of bad outcomes for our future, will not bring about healthy emotions. All it will serve to do is put us in deep bondage, for the sake of things that might not even occur!
Alas, the only answer, the only relief, lies in focusing in on the present. It is life-giving, mobilizing, and uplifting. Only by focusing on the present, can a sound, healthy perspective be achieved that will allow for effective management of the past, and wise planning for the future.
If you are interested in experiencing more of the freedom that comes from reducing stress through Mindfulness Meditation, try Googling Jon Kabat-Zinn, and look into many of his wonderful resources developed through the University of Massachusetts Medical Center Stress Reduction Clinic.
(For a list of some additional methods of overcoming SAD, please read below.)
Some Additional Help with SAD:
For some, the answer may lie in light-therapy (phototherapy). Receiving a 20 minute dose (or recommended) of a special frequency light wave early in the morning before the sun comes up, has been found helpful in alleviating symptoms of SAD, according to some clinical studies. The light is not looked into directly, but is set in front of you while, say, reading a book. Be cautioned that exceeding the recommended daily length of time in the presence of the special light may cause feelings of annoyance due to overstimulation.
For others, the answer may lie in medication. There are several beneficial medications on the market that can help alleviate the symptoms of depression; consult your doctor to discuss your options. My experience, however, is that medication alone is not the “be-all, end-all.” Rather, medication should be viewed as that which can help set the train back on the tracks; what generates movement down those tracks, requires an additional form of assistance (counseling, psychotherapy, etc.). When a train is de-railed, it simply cannot move forward, until it is lifted back into position. Medication can sometimes fulfill that role and is sometimes needed temporarily, and sometimes permanently.
Physical exercise is a wonderfully valuable aid to anyone enduring any form of depression. In fact, movement of any kind is 100% more effective than no movement at all. So if you can only put one foot in front of the next, you’re on your way to recovery. I have a “lunatic” friend who takes it so much further, and is currently participating in a running event called “The Goofy,” which is a back-to-back half-marathon, followed by a full-marathon! Why she does it? It feels downright good, she reports. I suspect that the good is not just physical (for there is much pain in enduring marathon running), but is also emotional. As muscles are flexed and energy is exerted, hormones called endorphins are released into the bloodstream, creating a natural “high.” Lactic acid is also released, and lymph is moved throughout the body, enhancing overall well-being.
But if you’re not a runner, that’s okay, too. Walking has tremendous value, not just for the physical benefit, but also for affective (emotional) wellness. Take yourself where you are at. If you can run, run. If you can walk, walk. If you can bike, bike. Just move. Somehow. Move.