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Banishing the winter blues

These are the dark days...

Ugh, will it EVER get light today?

Answer, No, if the weather forecast is anything to go by. We are set in for a day of 8/8 cloud cover and day-long drizzle. Should be fun walking the dog in this...

Like many people in the northern hemisphere, I suffer from SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder. You may know already if you've got this  because it means you basically want to hibernate all winter - you can't wake up, you can't keep your eyes open, you can't get enough sleep no matter how much you sleep, you eat lots and gain weight, and you generally feel low and depressed. Uncontrollable, reasonless weeping is another clue. February is about the worst month, but December and January are no picnic either.

It was my doctor, some 12 years ago, who noticed the connection between my depression and winter. As, once again, I sat in his office, weeping and sniffling, he looked thoughtful and started tapping into his computer. "Do you realise?" he said, "that you come in for your anti-depressants every year between September 15th and October 15th? It's like clockwork. When do you stop taking them?"

"April," I said. "Come to think of it, it's April every year."

blog imageOn that occasion, I departed from his office with a prescription for MAOIs - the old-fashioned type with which you couldn't eat yeast and red wine and Twiglets, but the connection with winter was too strong to ignore so I decided to buy a lightbox. Like many people, I'd heard about them but been put off by the price - even then they cost over £300 and good ones haven't gotten a deal cheaper, considering all it is, is a box full of daylight-spectrum bulbs. But just a few days of using it and I was feeling like a different person.

Since then, I've managed without anti-depressants in winter but instead chosen to deal with my SAD by other means. Firstly there is the lightbox, to which I am glued like Linus with his blanket all winter, and even on dull days in summer. For years, it was set on timer to come on at 5.45 in the morning, right behind my head as I lay in bed, and I would then sit and read till about 7.30, then get up and go about my day - leaving for work at 8.00 or 8.30. This was enough light to keep me going throughout the working day, but now that I work from home, so I have my lightbox set up on near my workstation and it's on all day, but set a little further away.

The cats love this thing - in fact I've lost one to a cat snuggling up to it and pushing it off the desk.

In case you've never seen one, a lightbox gives out 'full spectrum' light that imitates daylight. It's a bright white light that is very strong - usually about 10,000 lux - and you have to sit within about 18 inches to get the full benefit. The further away you sit, the longer you must use it.

Our second mode of attack is to have daylight fluorescents all over the house, particularly in the office, where there's a bank of five of them. Daylight fluorescents aren't full spectrum but they're a good blue light that makes you feel like you're in the open, as opposed to the greenish pall of normal fluorescents.

blog imageNowadays, to rid myself of that sluggish got-to-hibernate feeling in the mornings, I also have a Lumie Body Clock. This comes on gradually, like dawn, over the course of 90 minutes and the theory is that by the time the alarm actually rings, you're properly awake. It is a hell of a lot better than being woken by the alarm - you wake up gradually and naturally, as if being woken by the sun. Like the lightbox, it gets the feline seal of approval and half the time my view of it is blocked by a cat, soaking up the false dawn. If you live in the US, there are daylight alarms by Hammacher Schlemmer that even wake you up with nice smells, but sadly these aren't available in Europe.

One further trick for banishing winter is kind of corny, but it also works - birdsong on a CD. I keep this playing all day long in winter, and so cozy and bright is our office, with its yellow blinds, tweeting birds and brilliant lighting, that it can be a real shock to walk out onto the landing and find it's a dark winter day outside.

The final tip, if you have an IPhone, is to download a background sounds app. Rather than an alarm clock, these days we're awoken by 45 minutes of dawn chorus that sounds totally genuine, followed, at 8.00, by the sound of a Japanese wooden flute. A better way to greet the day... 


Always look on the bright side of life...

Optimistic women live longer - the self-satisfied cows

Optimistic women live longer, according to the results of a new survey.

Well, that's me buggered then....

I am an arch pessimist. I mean, I don't mean to be, but when I filled in the psych questionnaire on Authentic Happiness, I was off the scale for pessimism, much to my surprise.

I think of myself as a happy person, or at least a contented one. But optimism, in psychological terms, doesn't mean being happy. It's more the state of mind where you feel that setbacks and bad things are temporary or unusual (ie: out of the ordinary), that good things are par for the course (ie: ordinary), and that you have the power to change things.

Optimism of this kind is something that I simply don't have, and personally I blame religion for a lot of it.

'You laugh now - but later you'll weep...' is a common saying that many of we (ex)Catholics grew up with. A continual state of being told not to get too full of yourself, not to relax for a moment, because God is watching and if you let your guard down, he'll have you for breakfast (just to teach you a lesson for being uppity).

It is not the way to raise a confident, outgoing child and it's quite possible, of course, that once this attitude is ingrained it isn't so much fixable as liveable-with (ooh, how optimistic of me...).

The changes that psychological (and/or physical and/or sexual) abuse make in your brain at a young age lead to life-long anxiety and depression - at least for women.

When placed in stressful situations such as having to speak in public or do mental arithmetic in front of an audience, such women produce very large amounts of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol. Overproducing cortisol your whole life means that your life will probably be shorter - it's a big strain on the heart. 

So is there any good news, if you're not naturally optimistic? Well, you can learn to be more optimistic. Start by buying Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman (links below) to find out how - by practising hard for a couple of years, I've raised my overall score to a whopping -2 ('very pessimistic', LOL) and now only have a score of 6 - 'moderately low' - for self-esteem. This may not seem much, but it is a massive improvement from where I was at two years ago. (For instance, this morning, I managed to stop myself double-thinking that my lung x-ray would show cancer just to spite me because I'd been arrogant enough to think it might not be cancer...)

And, in fact, being pessimistic can also be a good thing - in some walks of life and some situations, pessimism is just what you need. Indeed, as Seligman says, optimists make good salespeople, but they make bad lift inspectors! 




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