In These Times by Dr. Jody Kussin, October 12, 2020
What is the opposite of a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” (Judith Viorst’s fabulous story)? How many of us are able to identify and say, it was a ‘wonderful, fabulous, no mess, very good day.’ It used to be we found the horrible days to be the unique experience, and the great days to be more of the norm. Only now, for many, however, that has switched. The ‘new normal’ is the challenging days, and the exception is the terrific days. So best to pay attention and mark and name those wonderful days, as they may be far and few between, and we don’t want to let them just slip by, unacknowledged.
Autumn. Leaves change (except in my neighborhood, where they wait ‘til Martin Luther King weekend in January to confuse us). You cannot find a can of pumpkin puree in any store after October 1 (it’s almost as bad as the still elusive search for Clorox Wipes). And winds kick up. And pollen fills the air. Allergy sufferers and asthma people are in agony, made especially challenging now when you are not sure if the sniffles are a cold, flu, allergy, or COVID.
To make matters worse, as we move into Fall and then Winter, we have less and less access to sunshine each day. Even here in Sunny California, with our high temperatures. The days are shorter. Despite the fact that our sense of the days is that they are ENDLESS, and we are trapped in the hamster tube of our houses, not able to get out often, with our view of the world somewhat fuzzy from our own breaths on those narrow window panes.
We spent time outside this summer, but then – heat, fires, winds, mosquitos….and as our children ‘went back to school’, we moved things indoors. As numbers of the virus re-increased in various communities, we kept things majorly indoors. So even before a season change, we made our worlds increasingly small, and mostly hunkered down, in our houses and covered patios, and now, here we are, permanent fixtures in our ‘little boxes’ (thank you Melvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger.)
Fall organically steals our daylight hours and then, to make it worse, we fall backward, the last weekend in October, and are down to barely any time of day in the sun at all. Yup, November 1, 2am. (Imagine if we lived farther north…. Canada – Alaska…. ay!) So, we Fall back. Fall behind. And Fall sucks us up.
And we are sad.
Sad? Yes, we are sad.
Worse, however, is that many of us, on top of feeling sad, also suffer from S.A.D. Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a thing. Scientific, diagnoseable, mental illness. It is nothing to panic over, but it is a thing. And you should be aware. I was on a national webinar last week called ‘parenting in the pandemic.’ There were many little take away pearls – like – fathers are spending more time with their children these past six months than in the history of America – and – fathers are reaching out to other fathers more than ever, and connecting as parenting peers….very nice. But also, I heard a lot about the amount our children are withdrawing, socially isolating, and demanding to be ‘left alone.’ What’s a parent to do?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same time every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you moody. Signs and symptoms can include feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, losing interest in things you used to enjoy, experiencing sleep challenges, feeling tired and drained of energy, experiencing changes in appetite or weight, having a hard time concentrating, feeling agitated/irritable, and even having a sense of hopelessness. In extreme cases S.A.D. can include suicidal thoughts. You may recognize some of this in yourself, your spouse, your teen or even your child.
The specific causes of S.A.D. are still unknown. However, some factors that may come into play include: a change in your biological clock/circadian rhythm due to reduced levels of sunlight that disrupt the body’s internal clock, a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, that may occur due to a decrease in sunlight that can cause a drop in serotonin, and/or a disruption to the body’s level of melatonin, which has a role in sleep patterns and mood.
I don’t suggest we become alarmist and start self-diagnosing medical and/or psychological conditions. However, on the other hand - don't brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the "winter blues" or a seasonal funk that you or your partner or your parent or you child have to tough out on your own. If concerned, assess for the following: Social withdrawal, including oversleeping and not wanting to get out of bed; school or work problems; substance abuse concerns; history or presence of other mental health disorders (anxiety, eating disorders and substantial changes in appetite/weight, attentional disorders); and of most concern, suicidal thoughts or behavior.
If you or a loved one has these issues in addition to some of the signs and symptoms listed earlier, it is important to contact your family health professionals – primary care physician, pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist….the people you rely on for help with medical situations.
Many of us will have ‘light’ cases of S.A.D. Being aware of it, and then ‘just’ talking about it, or venting about it, is incredibly helpful. Call a friend, a cousin with whom you have not chatted in forever, a Facebook pal – feel free to whine, complain, have a nice cry. Get it out. Write a song, paint a picture, journal…. get it out. I had a nice visit recently with a Little Miss five-fear old. She told me she needed to sing some songs. There were many feeling words in her songs. And lots of dramatic flair. Some outrage expressed. Lots of “and I am NOT happy about this” and “this better stop soon.” (I’m not suggesting she has S.A.D., just admiring her as a role model for saying the things that need to be said, with a fist as microphone, and belting it out while taking a walk in the neighborhood.)
Talking helps. Exercise helps. And you know what really helps? GET OUTSIDE when the sun is shining. Sit in the sun. Walk in the sun. Read a book in the sun. Garden in the sun. Visit a friend (with masks on and at the proper distance!) in the sun. Lie in the sun. Wash your hair and let it dry in the sun. We are lucky, living in California. But. We have to make use of this good luck and GET OUTSIDE. Visit the beach or a park. Ride your bike (and not your peloton, your actual outdoors bike.) Roller blade. Skateboard. Blow bubbles in the sun. Use sidewalk chalk and make a hopscotch set in front of your house. Jump rope in the sun. Wash your car in the sun. Wash your dog in the sun. Wash your patio furniture in the sun. GET OUTSIDE. It’s important and it’s healthy and it’s necessary in decreasing the number of ‘terrible horrible no good very bad’ days.
When all else fails, turn up the volume and ‘walk on sunshine!’