Contributed by Kelly Bembry Midura. This article was originally published in the November, 2012 issue of AAFSW’s Global Link newsletter. Read more about the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide here.
It’s that time of year again. In northern latitudes, the days are now getting shorter and colder. Some people love the onset of winter, but others dread the coming months. For those of us with Seasonal Affective Disorder, AKA “winter blues,” the changing seasons mean months of fighting off lethargy, aches and pains, and crankiness. In short: all the symptoms of mild depression. No fun!
Women are especially susceptible, for some reason, being much more likely to experience SAD than men, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, men who have SAD tend to be more seriously affected by the disorder.
I’m a southern gal who didn’t miss winter one little bit while posted to Central America. However, our first European tour, in Prague, was much more difficult than it had to be because I did not fully recognize and deal with the symptoms of SAD. Now posted to Vienna, I’ve done a bit of research and found solutions that are highly effective in fighting off my winter blues.
You have to have the gear. Never mind the cost. Never mind what other people are wearing. Never mind looking like an overdressed dork if you have to. Once that cold gets in your bones, joint stiffness and aches will soon follow. Be prepared! Think layers, especially around your core areas, hands, feet, and head. I love the silk underwear sold by LL Bean, REI, and other “outdoorsy” retailers. In winter, I wear a silk tank almost every single day, under a turtleneck and cardigan or overshirt. (And that’s just for indoors!) Lightweight cotton tanks and tees can also be helpful layers for retaining warmth. Invest in good, warm socks and shoes. And for heaven’s sake, don’t go out without a hat. You’ll catch your death.
Get moving. Every single day. One major issue I had in Prague was that my only regular exercise was walking. This was either miserable or impossible on many winter days due to nasty weather and ice on the streets. Though this wasn’t such a problem at our next post, Washington, I did learn how valuable a nice warm gym can be on a frigid day. Here in Vienna, I am religious about working out during the long, cold, gray winter, usually three times per week. On other days, I bundle up and go for an hour’s brisk walk, or hike in the hills around Vienna with my husband on the weekends.
Exercise will not only increase your metabolism and warm you up, but will have a positive effect on your mood for the rest of the day. But, again, you need the gear for both outside and inside. Water-resistant hiking boots and a rainproof coat are a must, especially in Europe. Don’t go to the gym in a ratty old t-shirt and shorts. It will just make you feel worse. Invest in a real workout outfit in a breathable fabric. Don’t forget good-quality athletic shoes to prevent damage to your feet and knees. Put your favorite high-energy music or an interesting podcast on your mp3 player and go for it!
Try a light therapy lamp. These can be helpful, though I don’t personally think they resolve the problem altogether. I have a small portable model that was issued by our medical unit at post. During the winter, I use it on the kitchen table while I have my coffee and check emails in the morning. Interestingly, I have noticed that if I don’t set a timer and leave the lamp on for too long, I actually feel “hyper.” Friends have reported the same effect. Start with just ten or fifteen minutes, then experiment with the lamp to see what length of exposure works best for you.
Consider a low dose of medication if other methods do not resolve the problem. In my case, I am so affected by winter blues that I need a small dose of anti-depressant to ‘top off” the other measures. You may or may not need this, but particularly if you are posted to one of the dark, cold countries for the first time, I would encourage you to be open to the possibility. SAD is a real medical issue and quite common in some countries even among people who otherwise have no issues with depression. It may require a medical solution.
Finally, get the heck out of Dodge! There’s a reason so many Europeans fly south in the winter. You may not even have to go far to find relief. Last January, we traveled just a few hours south of Vienna, to northern Italy for a week. My husband actually likes winter for some inexplicable reason, but even he was amazed at how good it felt to lose a layer of clothing and get away from the persistent gray skies on the other side of the Alps. I’m pushing for Rome this winter. It turns out that I don’t need the tropics to feel better; I just need to not be actually freezing and see some sun for a little while.
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be difficult to identify, but it’s not that difficult to cope with once you understand the nature of the problem. Get the right gear, take action, and enjoy that cold-weather post!