The Solution to Winter SADness
By Rita Anya Nara
The winter sky looks like death leaking out of a giant, overturned bowl. That putrid gray haze could be eight in the morning, or three in the afternoon. Same difference, you think, like the day doesn't even matter. Oh really, you’re fine. You’re not coming down with something; you’re just down. Waiting for something to ease the sense of hopelessness, the lack of energy, the difficulty waking up, the difficulty completing basic tasks. You don’t even know you’re experiencing major symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, more commonly known as SAD.
SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter – with or without an accompanying plunge in temperature. According to the American Osteopathic Association, SAD can affect up to 10% of Americans per year. Many cases go undiagnosed, showing all the signs of clinical depression: lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of interest in normal activities, and social withdrawal. Many go on an antidepressant medication they won’t need come April or May – and if they decide to go off then, they suffer uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that numb the joy of one of the best times of year. So is there a more natural and equally effective way to treat SAD?
Yes, and it’s not that difficult. It’s a vacation.
Although it may seem hard to believe, there are countless places out there, right now, where there isn’t a cloud in the sky, and day outlasts night. You only need to get there – or to the nearest airport. Think of your trip as recharging your batteries. A trip can revitalize you for a full season the same way an early-morning three-mile jog can give you an invigorating dose of energy for the rest of your day. In fact, the biggest hurdle you may need to overcome to take “the SAD journey” is to make your plans and follow through with them. Here are some recommendations.
Explain to others why you need to get away. Don't take any flack from neighbors, friends, and coworkers who view you as self-indulgent for going hundreds or thousands of miles south. You’re going to be of far more value to others as a person, a professional, and a loved one if you take care of yourself than if you wrap yourself into a depressed ball until the spring equinox.
Don't go alone – but don't take your whole family either. Take a closer look at the people you care about. SAD is prevalent enough that the chances are a family member or good friend also has SAD, or displays some early warning signs. Since SAD is known to be hereditary, and to occur more in women than men, your daughter, niece, or granddaughter could be suffering from SAD. Look for the same symptoms in them that you noticed in yourself, and invite a fellow SAD sufferer to travel with you. Not only will they greatly benefit from the trip, but you’ll be showing them the importance of managing a health problem early on.
Have a plan to manage jet lag. If you’re journeying a long distance southwest or southeast, the last thing you want is to be so affected by the time difference that you're awake half the night and sleepy when the sun is streaming through your hotel windows. Over-the-counter melatonin supplements can help you adjust, as can modifying your sleep schedule days before you leave in order to ease the transition to a different time zone. Ask your doctor for some suggestions based on where you're going.
Don't run yourself ragged at your destination. Given the expense and personal resources devoted to a trip, many people try to cram in as many activities as possible to get the most “worth” out of their travels. Recognize that it’s not what you do, but how you do it that will make you feel better – and that by steering clear of tour buses, you avoid getting pulled into a museum or two you really don’t want to see. Focus on simple outdoor activities – things that keep you moving instead of thinking. And once you’re tired, put on the sunscreen and rest on the beach or deck.
Look on the brighter side (literally) when you return home. Remember, you can expect the positive physiological effects of your trip to last for many weeks to come. It might still be snowing or raining all day when you get home, but the days will already be getting longer – and the dreary surroundings won’t feel so permanent. SAD, unlike a flu bug, needs several weeks to fester in place, and you have time on your side. Pretty soon your home will have that glow that reminds you of vacation – and you’ll only need to journey to your nearest window to enjoy it.
Rita Anya Nara suffered from panic disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and social anxiety disorder when she started traveling and wrote her book, The Anxious Traveler, from her own experiences. She hopes to inspire apprehensive travelers to manage their fear so they can have incredible experience. Nara is an avid photographer, loves to hike, and is studying to be a professional travel companion. She resides in northern California when she’s not traveling. Visit her website, www.thebravetraveler.com.