Seasonal Affective Disorder and What You Can Do to Prevent It

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It feels like the beginning of a prolonged period of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities and even people, and a sense of being taunted by the sudden ubiquity of Christmas carols instructing us to be of good cheer. And for most of the U.S. and Canada, the whole thing just got jumpstarted by the end of daylight savings time.

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Aw, the magic of the holidays is near! But for sufferers of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the shortened and often gloomy days, compounded by winter storms and long, dark nights feels like anything but “magic.” Instead, it feels like the beginning of a prolonged period of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities and even people, and a sense of being taunted by the sudden ubiquity of Christmas carols instructing us to be of good cheer. And for most of the U.S. and Canada, the whole thing just got jumpstarted by the end of daylight savings time.

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know if you suffer from SAD every year at this time, although this article by the National Institute of Mental Health gives a solid explanation of seasonal affective disorder’s symptoms, risk factors, and treatments. You want solutions, right? Here are 5 that you may not have necessarily considered:

1. Light therapy. This is a frequently used treatment that works by extending the amount of light exposure people have during the day. There are a few ways to get this, too. One bookworm I knew treated her SAD by filling a beautiful aquarium with corals and anemones. She actually came to look forward to long winter nights that were spent reading by her tank, and did so without the harmful rays of intense lightboxes. Terrariums, which have made a comeback from their 70s heyday, are another great low light option; and African violets, which flower in a huge array of colors, are well-suited to terrarium living. Growlights for indoor plants will keep tropical beauties with full, glossy leaves at their most lush and healthy, helping create an attractive living space that’s also well-lit. Be sure to read manufacturer instructions about plant light safety.

2. Dance and arts based therapies. There are a lot of great talk therapists who specialize in work with depressive disorders. Talk isn’t the only form of therapy, though. Dance therapy allows the body to experience healing through movement and physical expression. If you can’t find a dance therapist, there are dance classes at gyms, studios, and Meetup circles around the country offering everything from ballroom to hip hop to bellydancing. You say you feel too self-conscious to dance? Art therapy, yet another wonderful expressive therapy that engages through the process of creation, is another option. Art classes are also ubiquitous; and even craft stores offer opportunities to learn a fun hobby while producing gift-worthy wreaths and other pretty home decor.

3. Medications. This isn’t a cold. You’re not going to beat it with chicken soup. It’s time to recognize that seasonal affective disorder and other mental and emotional concerns are a part of your overall health. Make an appointment with your doctor and talk about your signs and symptoms. Medication can help you through the season.

4. Create ‘Winter Only’ Activities. Nope, I don’t mean Netflix and chowing down on pizza and leftover Halloween candy. You may have to get yourself out the door kicking and screaming, but engagement with the world is key to you staying active and healthy. Play tourist in your hometown museums and historical features; see the entertainment and lecture opportunities being offered in theaters, universities, and cultural centers. Embrace the outdoors, if your health permits it. I discovered a love of snowshoeing while living through New Hampshire’s long, dark, and snowy winter. And I’m a Native Texan, so this took some pretty deliberate choicemaking.

5. Fitness. Don’t wait until New Year’s to start a resolution to lose weight or get into shape. The time to start a physical regimen is now; and there are gyms for every budget, goal, and fitness interests. In addition to feeling better, there’s the very real bonus that strength training increases joint flexibility that can reduce injuries due to slips on ice. I attribute my strength training to avoiding serious injury from a fall I had in Chicago 4 years ago. Yoga friends swear by its health benefits, and hot yoga may be an especially good antidote for winter’s bite.

If after reading this, you’re still saying “Bah!,” I get it. It takes a lot of effort to avoid retreating into the negativity of seasonal affective disorder. By making that effort, though, you create the possibility of a radically different winter. There’s of course the added bonus that you’ll start spring with some beautiful houseplants, pieces of your own art, and maybe even some fancy Salsa footwork.

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Is Your Work Ethic Costing You Happiness?

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Okay, show of hands: how many of you either grew up hearing “You need to work twice as hard” or figured that out somewhere along the way? The double workload ethic is the story for many who grew up in systems of inequality. It often meant survival in a world that would otherwise serve us up a plate of scraps and tell us how happy we should be that we can eat, at all.

Roots of the Double Workload Ethic

I don’t know many Black families who didn’t teach their children this message. Ditto for folks whose families immigrated to the U.S., whether from South America, South Asia, Southern Europe, or somewhere in-between. We LGBT folk who’ve lived “out” realized this too; as did women who entered the grossly unequal workplaces of the 70s and are still doing so today.

The message was clear: the world will not treat you fairly. To gain anything in life, you’ll need to prove yourself against people who are seeking to disprove you. If I had a dime for every time someone’s sought to disprove me in 30 years living out as transgender, I’d be typing this blog from Tahiti while sipping…whatever Tahitians drink.

Ours is a powerful shared story of survival, then; one that continues to guide us like a beacon toward an imagined future. What that future means isn’t made explicit. Is it a happy retirement in a modest house and with minimal debt: what many were led to believe is the American Dream?

Where the Double Workload Really Ethic Leads

The part that nobody told us is that, virtuous as it is to maintain a double workload ethic, it’s probably never once in the history of oppressed people made any one of us particularly happy. Consider the high incidence of untreated depression, anxiety, compulsive gambling and addiction, as well as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health problems afflicting American workers.

Doubling down on work is not a celebration of life nor of the body in which we live it.

Let’s also consider what the double workload ethic truly does to relationships. Many of us have painted ourselves into a corner with the notion that working extra hard is a necessary sacrifice for our families.

While there’s a clear financial advantage to doing this for the short term, once the urgency was over, how many of you kept the sacrifice going because you couldn’t figure out how to do anything else? How many of you have watched children grow and people pass from your life while you were busy working?

The Power of ‘NO’

What would it mean to you if, just for a minute, you were to entertain a notion that perhaps you have human limitations and a right to work less than is humanly possible? I can sense some of you becoming appalled at this suggestion because it seems so contrary to your beliefs. If you’ve conditioned yourself to believe that the double workload ethic is a lifelong must, it’s a radically different concept I’m suggesting.

If you’re willing to consider that I may be right though, here are some things you can do right now while you’re at your desk on this quick break from work, waiting for your microwaved cup of ramen noodles to cool (don’t spill that on the keyboard. The IT folks get touchy about such things).

  1. Be Grateful. Spend a few minutes thinking about the people whose own work ethics guided you here. If you got here on your own, be grateful for the resilience it took to help you achieve what you have on this day.
  2.  Be Loving. Notice the things that you have in life right now that aren’t your work and which need your focus. Who’s alive in your life right now that really matters most to you? What attention might you be yearning to give this person; and what attention might the person be yearning for from you?
  3. Be Creative. What parts of your life need expansion? Is there a love you have for art, gardening, or another passion that’s calling to you? Perhaps you’ve been putting off experiencing something new: the joy of learning a language, of visiting a nearby museum or garden; or of taking a journey to the mountains, the shore, or a new neighborhood in your own city. Is your dog giving you that “Come on and take me to the dog beach, girl!” kind of look?
  4. Say No. It’s a fun little word. Just two letters. Make it a practice to use it when you’ve reached your limits; and when you’re unwilling to sacrifice time spent loving and creating. Let go of the fear of disappointing someone because chances are, some other Yes person will do what you’re no longer willing to do. The world won’t end without you giving your all; but if you don’t stop saying Yes when you need a No, you’ll lose a lot more than you gain.

My wish is for each of you to experience your humanness fully. Live in this day and enjoy what it means to exist in the life you have, whatever circumstances you’ve created. Consider this day in this life as the ultimate opportunity; for in so many ways, it truly is.

In other words babes, live in the Now.

Dr. Stacee’s Review of ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho

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The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A hero’s journey for our time, this book resonates as the ultimate coming of age story. It held me spellbound and because I couldn’t put it down, I actually elected to read it while running on the treadmill instead of going with an easily digestible episode of Dr. Who or a Mexican soap opera.

That’s commitment for me. Treadmill reading isn’t easy.

Even the book’s publication story is compelling: In its first launch, it was not a commercial success. The author’s commitment to the book and his conviction that this is truly something that readers want and need was part of what attracted me to it; for this is the living spirit of the hero in his book.

The story is of Santiago, a sheepherder boy who notes the herd/follower mentality of his sheep; which is a worthwhile allegory for a human experience in its pre-awakened state. He realizes one day of his sheep, “They trust me, and they’ve forgotten how to rely on their own instincts….” This is Santiago’s burgeoning awareness that there’s something to which he’s instinctually being called to do.

Following a dream of buried treasure in Egypt, Santiago experiences a journey of transformation as he encounters people whose lives we see all around us: the sage Melchizedek whose message Santiago almost misses in becoming too irritated to listen, the shopkeeper who has a dream of going to Mecca that he’ll never fulfill (the person who doesn’t take risks to break free), the Englishman who’s become so invested in pursuing the intellectual qualities of spiritual alchemy that he misses the opportunity to truly transform (the academic who lacks real wisdom).

Santiago experiences plenty of hard knocks. Rather than turning around and going home, which many would do, or going down a road of self-pity and convincing himself that this is all there is for his story, Santiago chooses to learn from the experiences: “…he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as a the poor victim…and an adventurer.”

Santiago’s is the story for all of us in our choosing of perception, our commitment to a path that we know is right even if people around us don’t understand it or say it’s wrong.

The book’s theme: “…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” becomes Santiago’s living experience as he undertakes the journey. He does so humbly, learning through the experiences and slowly undergoing an alchemy of the soul.

This book did it for me.

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Our Relationship with March? It’s…Complicated

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That reaction we have that’s deeply personal, offended, angry at the weather? In our irrational networks of emotions, we’re reliving every single instant of betrayal we’ve faced in life. Memory networks just know how betrayal feels. In the moment when we’re experiencing it, the weather feels somehow personal.

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March, for much of the U.S. that isn’t Hawaii or South Florida, is a season of dramatic changes. It’s the roller coaster ride between balmy early spring and deep winter cold snaps. In many ways, the dramatic shifts are the story of human emotion. One moment we’re feeling good…make that great! Our disposition is as sunny as that early spring day that requires only a light jacket. Suddenly, the clouds appear. Our mental picture darkens. We’re back in our internal state of darkness and rain, possibly even feeling icy.

The ultimate trickster, March is the Loki of seasons, lulling us into feeling safe and confident that spring is here, then betraying us. We all know about betrayal, whether it was a boss who gave a rosy outlook about our job’s future and then laid us off the next month, a love interest who left us, a friend or sibling who shared a secret of ours. Some of us have deep rooted stories of betrayal that began in childhood and that continue to disrupt our lives today.

How We Recognize Betrayal

Rationally, we understand that Arctic disturbances don’t equate with the anguish and devastation to our lives that interpersonal betrayal represent. We humans don’t always exist in rational spaces though, do we?

We’re not completely rational because it’s not our makeup and we wouldn’t want it to be. We’re designed to experience feelings and memories. Only…in this case, it’s our memories of an emotional reaction getting triggered by something that’s unrelated. We rationally understand that the weather isn’t truly betraying us; but our memories of betrayal are triggered in the moment, causing momentary anguish.

Our brains evolved to make associations, and emotions guide us to respond accordingly. Remember that whole fight or flight thing folks learned about in Psychology 101 or for from know-it-all sister who took the course? That’s what this is.

If I love you, my mental picture of you comes with a lot of warm fuzzy feelings that can remind me of other warm fuzzy feelings which I associate with safety, tenderness, and a sense of freedom. If I then read a poem, or see a beautiful vista on a hike, or witness my neighbor’s tabby affectionately grooming the other cat (they don’t do this because those cats hate each other; but work with me, here), it may make me think of you. You represent an expression of my love, and I therefore associate other loving things with you. If I’m really attuned, I might call you and tell you how the poem, hike, or kitty love made me think of you.

Betrayal works in the same way.

Each time we’re betrayed, we feel it deeply. It shakes our trust in not only betrayers, but in situations that resemble those in which we were betrayed previously. If you were betrayed in a prior relationship, you probably entered your current one with more caution. Alternatively, you may avoid relationships all together due to past experiences of betrayal that result in present day fear of being betrayed again.

Why We Take March Personally

With its fickle patterns and untrustworthy ways, March is the ultimate betrayer. We develop a lot of reactive emotions to stories like these:

Texas gardener Janice was delighted to see her redbud trees and mountain laurels explode into color. She’d done everything right to protect her trees through the winter and had waited patiently for the reward of spring. That grape soda fragrance of mountain laurel trees was intoxicating, and she smiled as she sipped her Hill Country wine while gazing into her backyard. Then a deep freeze set in and kill all of the beautiful blossoms.

Father of two Daniel had traveled to Kansas City from his home in Rhode Island for business. He’d promised his daughter that he’d be home for her Friday night basketball game of the season. When a Saskatchewan Screamer so severe that the Weather Channel gave it a name (we’ll call it ‘Ophelia’ for our purposes) blew into Chicago, Daniel’s flight through O’Hare was cancelled until the following Sunday.

Who among us doesn’t feel rage at the unfairness to Janice and Daniel, helpless victims to the betrayal of March weather?

The Cycle of Our March Weather Response

That reaction we have that’s deeply personal, offended, angry at the weather? In our irrational networks of emotions, we’re reliving every single instant of betrayal we’ve faced in life. Memory networks just know how betrayal feels. In the moment when we’re experiencing it, the weather feels somehow personal. We may follow a cycle that goes something like this:

Phase 1- We get mad at ourselves for becoming upset about the weather.

Phase 2- We feel ashamed and sad because we don’t just shake it.

Phase 3- We make a concerted effort to not allow our moods to be affected by weather.

Phase 4- We see the weather report that another storm is on the heels of the one that just killed our plants or dumped a foot of snow on us.

Phase 5- We scream expletives or begin weeping uncontrollably. Anger has moved to a sense of helplessness.

Sounds like reactions to other forms of betrayal to me.

Whereas the perfect fix would be to spend March in a warmer clime, that’s not always the option. Obviously, weather passes. Blooms that are killed by freezes are sad; particularly for the gardeners who patiently tend the plants and trees on which they grow. Moms and dads make it home and make it up to their kids. Heavy snow is an inconvenience to everyone outside of the ski resorts and snow removal industry; but not usually much else.

Yet, a season for transition is upon us in March. Much is shifting and awakening as the longer days warm the earth and air. I’ll be tracking the spring from my home in New England, writing of things that the changing spirit of the season moves in me.

Hope April Fool’s Day doesn’t bring another blizzard like we had in ’97.

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Dr. Stacee’s Book Review: “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle

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Perhaps the best reason to read this book is that it just seems to make life easier, more peaceful, more loving. It gets me out of the drama of my own head and helps me appreciate the wonder that’s now. I can see myself heading into negative head spaces and stop myself. I’m a nicer, more radiant person as a result…lovable and loving.

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A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's PurposeA New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It says a lot about the power of a book that I’m still talking about it weeks after I finished it. This is how much “A New Earth” influenced me as a counselor, an educator, a thinker, a writer, and at the end of the day, a gal who’s trying to live fully and in peace.

The message of recognizing and somehow transcending the attachment to an ego form, our false sense of ourselves as “I am,” is especially meaningful…particularly as Tolle helps us to see how this really keeps us kicking around in our misery. Because kicking around generally means kicking each other from these notions of me vs. not me, casting the person who is different in the role of Other, we perpetuate war and violence, famine and scarcity, and other human ills that reflect what he calls “collective dysfunction.”

What really works for me in A New Earth is the method for seeing myself as the chief architect in my own chaos, my own conflict. I get attached to a notion of who I am and how things are supposed to be. I ascribe a lot of meaning to this, get all up in my feelings with it, and am blown about in my own thoughts and mood. When I can instead take the time to re-center, to recognize that the suffering I’m undergoing in any moment is really something I can transcend and therefore transform…well, baby. Drop the mic.

Since I finished the book, I’ve noticed that I am more conscious of my own thoughts. I tend to operate less from what Tolle calls the “pain body,” the sense of myself as aggrieved, suffering, trapped, etc. Before I go there with getting irritated with someone’s behavior, feeling stressed with traffic or helpless in response to some terrible item in the news; I return to my deep, meditative breath, slow myself down, and ask myself “What is this really about? What really is bothering me?” With this, I glimpse peace…and as I continue to practice these efforts, the glimpses get longer and longer.

It doesn’t mean that I stop caring about things that are important, or that I numb to issues and events that reflect areas of life concern. Rather, I care differently. So instead of thinking of what I don’t have, what I am against, what bothers me; I find myself tuning into what I have and am therefore manifesting, what I am for, what inspires me. I notice the here and now, and really taste my food for example, and notice my body in the rhythm of weight lifting. It fills me with gratitude.

Because my main interest is in Otherness and the experience that being cast in the role of Other and therefore “less than” has on people who’ve faced bullying and ostracization, Tolle’s discussion on the topic was particularly notable. Lines like “It strengthens the sense of separation between yourself and the other, whose “otherness” has become magnified to such an extent that you can no longer feel your common humanity…” really demonstrate this as a phenomenon in which people try to feel superior by creating power over one another.

By contrast, “To love is to recognize yourself in another. The other’s “otherness” then stands revealed as an illusion pertaining to the purely human role” brings the reader to the reconciliation. This is really the promise of the book. It’s a path for transcending the pettiness, the hurt, the floods of feelings and self-righteousness that get in the way of our ability to care about people, to allow them to matter to us.

Perhaps the best reason to read this book is that it just seems to make life easier, more peaceful, more loving. It gets me out of the drama of my own head and helps me appreciate the wonder that’s now. I can see myself heading into negative head spaces and stop myself. I’m a nicer, more radiant person as a result…lovable and loving.

I read the book first thing in the morning for a couple of weeks. It worked well for me, setting the tone for the morning and helping the workday turn into something that was infinitely less stressful. I enjoyed being able to take a concept and chew on for the day…maybe doing some writing of my own as I applied the concepts in my life. I think it’s a great tool for healing, and for promoting healing for people around us.

I just love this book!

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