When it comes to dealing with seasonal affective disorder — an extreme lethargy and sadness that accompanies the onset of winter — most sufferers have already heard it all when it comes to solutions. Here’s the drill in a nutshell: spend a good chunk of time in front of a lamp that emulates sunlight; meditate; plan trips to warm places; take long, soothing walks; keep a balanced diet and try to sustain a positive attitude.
There’s really nothing new on the scene when it comes to treatment methods for SAD. But there’s a lot more to SAD than meets the eye — way beyond the feelings of listlessness and sadness that set in alongside the cold, dark days of winter.
If nothing’s really worked to alleviate your challenges with SAD, it is because something that you don’t really understand is going on in your mind. To draw on the findings in neuroscience, there are absolutely millions upon millions of synapses firing in our brains at every moment, most of which are completely reflexive. Think about it: most of the time, we don’t even register that we’re breathing. Similarly, why the onset of winter would bring about SAD usually is a total mystery.
To put it simply: often, things go on inside ourselves that we can neither explain nor understand. So we can’t really fix them. We may be able to alleviate the symptoms, but we’d rather have a cure.
Start trying to conjure up everything you might not be consciously aware of that could be causing all the SAD: that bully in fourth grade, a trauma in your teens, grief or any other thing that might be contributing to what you’re feeling. You probably know that won’t work.
Unfortunately, the problem with having unconscious issues is that we can’t be conscious of them. Having ideas about what could be going on — insights, hypotheses and theories — does not lead to making things conscious. Unfortunately, no matter how smart we are, reason, common sense and intelligence do not help when it comes to affecting our emotions. Our emotional circuits, which problems like SAD originate from, are usually unreachable with higher-brain function. In other words: the synapses from the higher, rational brain to the lower emotional brain just aren’t there.
The good news is that even though our common sense and reason have little effect on unconscious emotional processes, there is a roadway to them, and that is through our emotions. Emotional experiences affect us in a way that even the most incredible and greatest ideas can’t. By “emotional experiences” I mean things that affect us emotionally — such as getting a promotion, falling in love, being recognized for something good that we did, or being kissed every day by a darling child.
In fact, even negative emotional experiences (such as feeling scared) can create emotional change. Sometimes, if we are scared enough, we can create change — such as stopping smoking because we could get cancer, or losing weight if we fear a heart attack. Emotional experiences, simply put, move us in ways that ideas and rationality just don’t have the power to do.
Unfortunately, we can’t always control what emotional experiences come our way. Life isn’t always easy. We work hard, and good things don’t happen, for most of us, every day. More than likely, you work very hard and the moments of reprieve from that hard work are few and far between. That’s reality. While you can’t control what positive experiences life will dole out for you, there are some emotional experiences you can seek out no matter how challenging your life may be.
One of the most powerful emotional experiences for which you can search is simply being heard. And by “being heard” I don’t mean listened to. Anybody can listen and give you their two cents’ worth. Advice can make you feel like you are doing, thinking, feeling things that are all wrong. That is not the emotional experience you need right now. Being heard means that you will feel understood, not coached.
Feeling understood, that you are not alone in what you are feeling, and that what you are feeling is correct and acceptable, goes a long way toward helping you find what’s draining you of energy and leading up to SAD. Having a good experience with being heard makes it easier for thoughts, ideas and feelings to surface so they can stop plaguing you.
Believe it or not, it’s hard to hear your own story. We judge ourselves pretty harshly. Or we get busy trying to talk ourselves out of feelings we probably need to follow instead, by telling ourselves to be more positive, more grateful, less negative or less angry. This doesn’t work with SAD.
Of course, searching for an emotional experience that will help you access thoughts or ideas that are causing SAD is not just something that will happen overnight. Finding the right emotional experiences takes time. You have to find a good journal to write in, a yoga mat to have your feelings on, or a really good person to talk to — someone who can really hear you beyond just listening and dispensing unwanted advice.
But life is a journey, and all you need is a little faith in the knowledge that emotional experiences have the power to create change in the brain when reason can’t. Start paying attention to your inner life, and following any thread or idea that you may intuitively have about yourself that could lead to further exploration. If there is any thought or feeling that you’ve been pushing away, take it to your listener.
The sooner you find a good place to start reviewing your life, the more of a leg up you will have on changing the way you respond to the onset of winter. Because, after all, it can be an incredibly beautiful season of internal growth, and warmth and depth, once you discover what blocked thought or feeling is undoubtedly standing in the way of feeling all that wonder.