Long ago I noticed that overcast days and Sundays were days on which I felt blue. And, oh God, a combination of the two–overcast and Sunday–was a guaranteed day of dreariness, during which I felt as if I had slabs of granite cuffed to my ankles.
Since fall is here, the days are going to get darker, cooler, and many of us are already worrying about what our brain is going to do to us now–will it let us fall into a horrible funk?
The grass is always greener: if you live in Iceland, fall is really, really, really dark and dreary. It’s about as bad as it gets. I have spent time there during winter and it’s hard to imagine what living through so much darkness would be like, year after year (once or twice is a novelty). In Iceland, you see the sun rise, partially, at 11 a.m. and set again at 3 p.m. It only partially rises, there’s no high noon sun there, just a low sun. Most of us don’t have it that bad, right?
As fall approaches, be ready to handle its affect on your mood. For starters, don’t travel to Iceland if you’re sensitive to darkness in the afternoon! Figure out what’s going on (are you ‘depressed’ or DEPRESSED?), and take action to manage your mental state. This may mean adding exercise and modifying your diet for some people and medication and therapy for others — in all cases, it’ll require a forgiving, nurturing frame of mind.
Are You ‘depressed’ or DEPRESSED?
Once in a while–those fall Sundays, those bleak white-sky days–I feel listless, limp, tired, and uninspired. I spend the day shuffling around with heavy feet, or lie down, whether sleeping, reading, watching a movie, or staring at a section of the wall that usually doesn’t get my attention. Some moments during those days I gaze out the window, supporting my cheek with the palm of my hand, looking at what the rain and cool weather are doing to the leaves, wondering, “Why, oh why this feeling?”
When you’re listless for a day, that’s not DEPRESSION its ‘depression,’ a blue mood. And I think it’s normal. It’s human.
However, if that one day–whether it’s a Sunday or Saturday or any other day of the week–of listlessness turns into another day and another day and you’re having trouble pushing yourself to meet your basic needs of showering, fixing yourself a meal, going to work, getting the mail, answering phone calls, etc., that’s DEPRESSION. Everyone has a different tolerance level for it. You may find that a week of depression each month is acceptilbe for you. Someone else may find that amount of depression not at all okay.
Sunday is A Blues Day in General
Do you tend to be blue more often on a Sunday? I do. Many people do.
Sundays are a weird day of the week. It’s both the end of the weekend and the start of the week, a bookend day. Sundays are the border between the weekend and the week, between your time and the time you give to your employer–well, that is, if you work a traditional Monday-Friday week. Sundays are often shapeless–they don’t contain the structure that a workday does. If you’re a control freak, an unstructured day might make you anxious. If you’re religious and attend a house of worship of some sort, that will give some structure to your day (but what do you do after church?)
Think about what Sundays were like at your house when you were a kid, and see what you can derive from that. Do you remember?
I have a creative writing exercises book (What If? by Painter & Bernays) that says this about Sundays; from a writer’s perspective a character set in a scene on a Sunday is ripe for distress:
“Most of the time it doesn’t matter on what day of the week you set your action–unless it’s a Sunday. Most people feel at loose ends on this day, even those who spend the morning in church. Instead of using the freedom wisely, a lot of us tend to overdo it–overeat, oversleep, overreact. Sundays bring out the worst in people. Children grow anxious as the weekend draws to a close and they realize they haven’t done their homework. During football season, another possible area of tension opens up. Then there is the obligatory trip to grandma and grandpa’s house for a large heavy meal and some equally heavy recriminations. Things happen on Sundays that wouldn’t happen on weekdays.”
To Medicate or Not to Medicate?
I have never suffered from prolonged depression. I have experienced fall blues for sure, sometimes also called SAD, seasonal affective disorder. I’m extremely sensitive to my environment, and for me it has benefitted my mental health and emotional health to move back to California–in a fog-free, warm part of Northern California. I’ve learned that when I look out the window and see blue sky through clouds and the light of the sun on the trees and ground, that my spirit is immediately impacted in a positive way. It’s fall-lite here.
Do you have fall blues, or do you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? It’s important to know which it is, because there are some medication-free treatments for seasonal affective disorder that might help you out. Light therapy, for example, can save a lot of SAD-sufferers. Here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about this “type of depression”:
Seasonal affective disorder is a cyclic, seasonal condition. This means that signs and symptoms usually come back and go away at the same times every year. Usually, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the warmer, sunnier days of spring and summer. But some people have the opposite pattern, developing seasonal affective disorder with the onset of spring or summer. In either case, problems may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
Fall and winter SAD (winter depression)
Symptoms of winter-onset seasonal affective disorder include:
Loss of energy
Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
Difficulty concentrating and processing information
If you think SAD is what you have, maybe light therapy can help–I once knew someone who wore a light visor all fall. This is just one place that sells light therapy visors and light boxes for SAD.
Or, you can medicate. You can medicate for your seasonal affective disorder, or you can medicate for anxiety or depression.
If you decide to try medication, whether again or for the first time, you should absolutely pair it with therapy. No one should take meds alone because the root of the problem will never be exposed. Medication is not a substitute for the work of therapy, support groups, or working on yourself on your own. Meds are not a substitute for consciously trying to grow and learn and heal. At best, medications can “lift” away the fog so that you can see everything more clearly, rationally–including your core personal issues.
Deciding to use medication is a tough, very personal decision. It’s a tricky decision. It’s a brave decision. Sometimes it will require trying out different types of medications, waiting to see how you react, and adjusting dosage levels to see what works and what doesn’t. Be sure to get the help of a therapist–not your medical doctor–to figure out what type of the dozens of medications are the right fit for your needs (you may actually be suffering from anxiety, not depression! Or, vice-versa. )
Beat Depression with Diet & Exercise
Numerous studies by the medical community have shown that exercise reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. It doesn’t get more natural than that! That is, with cardiovascular, or aerobic, exercise — an elevated heart rate and sweat, sweat, sweat.
If you’re not interested in medication, put exercise to good use — exercise can transform you.
Nobody wants to exercise in the fall, everybody wants to hibernate. So, we all have to really push ourselves extra hard to make sure that we get exercise every day. Think of it as a prescription, doctor’s orders, if you have to — because exercise will relieve your depression symptoms. Plus exercise adds shape to your routine (adds shape to those shapeless Sundays).
To avoid the peaks and valleys (especially the valleys!) in your blood sugar levels, you should cut out, or curb, sugar and other foods (like carbs) that rev you up then slow you down. Don’t overeat. You don’t actually need all the fat stores that our ancestors needed! You’ll feel more even-keel in general if your diet has less sugar and more protein and vegetables — think hot soup, roast chicken, fish, roasted root vegetables.
Blues in Our Culture
Our culture has a lot of impact on how we view depression and the varying degrees of blues. Ours is a cure-all, pro-medication nation. We believe that no one has an excuse to be blue or depressed. I don’t think that’s fair to ourselves. Consistency is not human nature. Why should we expect ourselves to be consistently happy every single day? Isn’t a blue day, here and there, fine and normal? I think it is.
Ask yourself, do you expect yourself to be cheery all the time? Are your expectations of your moods each day fair and realistic? Can you really be a Cheery Caroline all the time, or want to be?
If it’s not DEPRESSION that you’re experiencing, then allow yourself a blue day here an there. Read a good book on that day, stay warm, eat warm food, and be careful to not use your blues as an excuse for treating yourself like crap — make it a cozy and nurturing day, steer it that way.
If it is DEPRESSION, then you have several tools at your fingertips — light therapy, medication, counseling, and a shift to low-sugar eating and daily cardiovascular exercise. So, take action.
Don’t let fall creep up on you with its cold fingers, preempt it with a new depression-averting approach this time around.