What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Winter in the Five Element tradition begins on November 9th, so we've officially entered this beautiful snowy season! Winter has so many gifts to offer, and yet many people find themselves thrown out of balance in these dark months. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to changes in season. Symptoms tend to begin in the fall and then continue into the winter months, and include low energy and moodiness. SAD can also cause depression in the spring and summer. Acupuncture can be a wonderful tool for regaining balance and joy for those who suffer from SAD during any time.
How can acupuncture help?
Physiologically, acupuncture stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, helping your body to flush out stress hormones. It also helps control the release of neurotransmitters, shifting dopamine and serotonin levels so that these systems are more in balance, and you feel happier and more balanced in the process. Acupuncture helps you feel better immediately, so that it's easier to carry out any lifestyle shifts that you know will help but may be difficult to start when you're feeling depressed. Your acupuncturist will discuss with you some of these simple lifestyle changes that you can make to help your body and mind stay healthy during this time. We'll discuss some of them now.
The wisdom in Five Element Acupuncture
In the Five Element tradition, each month has unique gifts. Knowing these can be one useful tool to stay balanced and positive during all the seasons of the year. For winter, these gifts include stillness, peace, and reflection. Looking outside, all things are turning inward for the season, taking time for a much deserved rest. We, too, need to rest, and winter is designed as our season to do this. In modern times, this is not necessarily what happens. The holidays come close behind winter's heels, and with it a lot of running around, buying gifts and planning for gatherings with family and friends. This is lovely, and yet it can also be exhausting and serve to shift us further out balance. Once the holidays are over everything stops, and many people feel sadness or emptiness show up at this time. The wisdom of the Five Element tradition says that although we may have many things to do, winter is not the time to run around. We can get still things done, as we are not a species that hibernates. But we should do everything more slowly, with more intention and reflection. This can be a wonderful shift in the 'to do' list of the holidays, and one that allows us to appreciate and enjoy the holiday season even more, while not becoming exhausted by it. Slowing down can also make the shift from holidays to post-holiday season more gentle.
One way to consciously slow down is to add time to meditate to your morning routine. Just 20 minutes a day can have a profound effect on your entire day, and season. Another possibility is to set yourself reminders to check in with your body throughout the day. You might set an alarm on your phone, or simply put a sticker on your bathroom mirror or on the corner of your computer screen. Alternately, you could wear a string around your wrist, or wear another article of clothing or jewelry that you're not used to wearing. Whenever you see or hear your reminder, pause and take three deep breaths. Consciously scan your body and see if you're holding tension anywhere. Common places to hold tension include your jaw, shoulders, neck, or back. If you find areas of tension, consciously relax them. Use your breath, and relax with each exhale until you feel loose and comfortable. Then, go back to what you were doing. This only takes a minute, but can have an immense impact on your body, as well as your mind. It's amazing how unconscious tension in the body can add to a feeling of stress in the mind. Taking time to release this is one way to slow down and be more peaceful in your day.
Flip the story
Another gift of the slowing down of winter is that it allows us time for reflection. Just as nighttime and sleep are times to reflect on your day, to process the things that have happened and reflect on them, so is winter the time to reflect on your year, to process the things that have happened and reflect on them. We can take this time when there's not a lot to do outside to mull over the experiences and lessons of the previous year, and use the things we learn to inform our decisions in the coming year. Many people in our modern culture do this on New Year's Eve, but the whole of winter is a great time to sit back and reflect and learn. If we do, we'll be more prepared to make wise decisions come Spring. This is another beautiful gift of winter: evolving wisdom.
There are a few other basic lifestyle changes that can help make winter more comfortable and peaceful. One is to be mindful of diet. A small change in diet can really have a profound effect on the mind. For example, many people have had the experience of feeling groggy after overeating. In addition to your body feeling uncomfortable, your mind also becomes uncomfortable. One way to support even moods during the winter is to be mindful of eating so as to avoid overeating. One might eat slower and savor food more, leading to a more enjoyable meal as well as the ability to notice being full sooner. In addition to being more mindful during eating, another healthy shift is to switch out white flour breads, pastas and pastries for ones made with whole grains. Substituting whole grains like rice or barley for flour is even better. In addition, sugar should be avoided, or at least eaten in very small quantities. Savoring and eating slowly can also help make this a do-able shift for the holidays. Adding more protein to the diet can diminish cravings for carbs. And as always, make sure your diet includes plenty of cooked leafy vegetables and baked root vegetables.
In addition to diet, exercising regularly can also boost mood. Walking in the morning or when there is the most sunlight is great. Doing any activity out in the sun can be an important aspect of staying healthy in winter, so winter sports such as cross country skiing or snow shoeing are also a good option. More gentle exercise such as yoga or tai qi can also be wonderful. If you do choose to exercise indoors, a sunny spot next to a window is ideal. Sunny or not, exercise has the power to make you feel stronger and happier in the short term, as well as keeping you healthier for the long term. Adding even a short period of activity to your daily routine will lead to positive changes almost immediately.
Transforming thought patterns
All this can seem well and good on paper, but seem daunting when it comes to carrying out these shifts in real life. You may be thinking that this would all be great but you'll never actually do it, or that being happy in winter just isn't possible for you. Negative thoughts are a big part of SAD, and are a big part of many people's lives. It is absolutely possible to shift both your way of being in winter and those doubting thoughts. To deal with negative thoughts, the first step is to recognize them while you are thinking them. Meditation can help you be more mindful of your thoughts, but it is not necessary. If you set your intention to cut out unhelpful negative thoughts, you can. These thoughts are often of something bad that happened in the past or involve worrying about the future. When you notice yourself thinking these negative thoughts, stop yourself. Tell yourself that these thoughts are not helpful. Then replace them by thinking about something positive in your life or something nice around you at that moment. If the thoughts involve worrying about the future, you can envision what you want to happen rather than what you don't want to happen. Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones is a big part of getting rid of the pattern of negative thinking. This may seem overly simplistic, but it is actually quite a profound practice. It is also an ongoing practice, so don't judge yourself for falling back into negative thinking regularly at first. Be gentle with yourself as you would be with a small child, and simply redirect thoughts back to something that makes you smile. Focus on something of beauty around you, or something in your life that brings you joy. This is another place where acupuncture treatment can be immensely helpful. Acupuncture reminds your body and mind how to relax, how to quiet thoughts and just be.
Interested in learning more about acupuncture? Take a look at About Acupuncture or How Acupuncture Works. You can also read about Our Philosophy or learn more about Wisdom Traditions Acupuncture. If you have any questions about this article or about acupuncture in general, feel free to contact the author, Marni Adhikari of Wisdom Traditions Acupuncture, through our Contact Page. You can now also Schedule an Appointment Online.
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Marni Adhikari, M.Ac, L.Ac, Dipl.Ac, is the founder and acupuncturist at Wisdom Traditions Acupuncture of Essex Junction, VT