February has always been an unusual month, even way-back-when.
The Romans, when they eventually added February to their calendar, considered it a month of purification. Indeed this is the very meaning of the Latin word februum. Some religions have traditionally held purification rituals this month in preparation for the oncoming spring. In modern times though, many simply see February as a month to endure, in the Northern Hemisphere anyway, and take some delight knowing that it is the year’s shortest month.
In the therapist’s consulting room, it is often a time when low feelings and shifting relationships seem to take prominence. Some people call it the time of the “winter blues.” If you find yourself feeling a bit down this time of year, know that you are not alone. Many psychologists and psychiatrists put winter blues down to a simple chemical reaction – a reaction of the body and mind to the lack of exposure to light. It has been given a clinical label too—Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. (I often wonder if the Scientist/Psychiatrist who first coined the name came up with the acronym or the title first.) It was first noticed by the South African Dr. Norman Rosenthal who found that his productivity and mood changed when he moved to a climate where the winter days were shorter and darker.
It was only relatively recently, in 1984, that SAD became a diagnosable “disorder” but as millions of people started to identify with these seasonal symptoms, it quickly gained currency in the medical and psychiatric community. The good news for sufferers of the winter blues is that firstly, it is temporary and will pass, and secondly, there are various treatments available that can help alleviate the symptoms.
In researching this light/mood connection and in his work with treating people with depression, the Scientist and Psychiatrist Dr. Rosenthal found that adjusting people’s levels of melatonin (a natural hormone which helps regulate our body clock) by exposing them to artificial light brought considerable relief. This has since been researched and refined and is now called “light therapy” or “phototherapy.” Usually this comes in the form of a light box which emits certain light wavelengths at greater power than an ordinary light. These light waves influence and can help regulate the body’s melatonin production. To gain the benefit of light therapy, a patient is usually asked to sit near the light source for 30 to 60 minutes per day.
Melatonin is sometimes called the “hormone of darkness” simply because it is inhibited by light. As the light fades and darkness sets in, melatonin is triggered and starts to cause sensations of drowsiness and activates the next stage of the sleep/wake cycle. This may help explain why we generally feel more tired in the winter, but there is also a strong connection to one’s mood. The combination of symptoms of SAD - which can include lack of energy and enthusiasm, withdrawing from social situations, irregular sleep and pessimistic feelings - can easily lead to a heavy dose of the winter blues. Finding ways to adjust one’s melatonin levels has been shown to be effective in moderating both sleep and mood disorders. It is a powerful enough substance that the hormone has been moved on and off the list of prescription medicines over the years here in Spain. As ever, if considering any kind of medication, it is essential to see your doctor and take advice.
Other treatments include a short-term prescription of anti-depressant tablets, negative air ionization, homeopathy and psychological therapeutic approaches.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Clinical Hypnotherapy are the indicated approaches for dealing with the psychological component. Visualisation is integrated into hypnotherapy in these cases, but can be a very powerful tool in its own right. The next time you feel a dose of the winter blues, take yourself away to a quiet space for a few moments, close your eyes and use all the power of your imagination to recreate how it feels to you when the sun is shining and you are feeling right. Use some Neurolinguistic Programming techniques such as “playing a movie” in your mind’s eye, imagining how good it feels when you are feeling good! If it’s the feel of the sun on your skin or the intensity of colours in the bright sunlight that you notice most, see how much you can recreate those sensations by simply imagining them – in as much detail as possible. The wonderful thing about the mind/body connection is that you can learn to “kickstart” the body’s reactions simply by what you think about or imagine.
Of course, one of the wonderful things about living in Barcelona is the weather. If you’ve come from northern Europe, you’ll have noticed that the big “light box” in the sky figures rather more in our daily lives than it did back home. So one thing we can do to lift our spirits, and to regulate our melatonin naturally, is to take a leaf from the unofficial “retired person’s handbook.” As many of our senior citizens do, find a sun trap somewhere, a park bench, a street corner café, a roof terrace, and take advantage of the sun whenever you can. If you feel you need a little extra “push,” have a talk with your doctor or therapist. Or you could try thinking of this time as the Romans did—a time of purification and preparation for Spring—which really isn’t far behind!
Peter Allegretti is a qualified personal and professional change specialist based in Barcelona. He specialises in solution-focussed approaches for effective change using Cognitive Behavioural, Neurolinguistic Programming and Hypnotherapeutic techniques. You can contact him at email@example.com