Winter can be a challenging time. The dark, cold and wet drive us indoors, and our thoughts turn inward. Depression and fatigue are felt more deeply and strongly
Depression is becoming more prevalent. Periodic periods of depression can affect anybody. Seasonal Affect Disorder, or "S.A.D.", is a type of winter "blues" which occurs this time of year due to the decreased sunlight hours. Symptoms of clinical depression are varied, and include irritability, low self-esteem, social withdrawal, mental dullness, insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping), lowered libido, hypochondria, sensory hallucinations, among many others. There are numerous medications, whether prescribed, over the counter or natural, which treat this common disorder. Depression is considered primarily a psychological disorder; however, patients with depression often have patterns of physical and emotional symptoms coupled with their mental disorder.
This article cannot fully cover the drug therapies available to the depressed patient. For some, the choice is clear: they must take medication to function in the world. Although many of the drugs available for depression have a beneficial effect, long-term use often has extreme unwanted "side" effects, and these drugs have proven to be addicting. Like any pharmaceutical drug, they would be better to be taken for a short period to get through an acute stage, or after other means have been exhausted. Once past the acute point, and also as a supportive method, other drug-free practices and therapies, such as exercise, nutrition, and Chinese medicine can be employed.
When you are depressed, exercise is not the easiest thing to do. In fact, nothing seems easy, except sleeping, moping and such. However, studies have shown that aerobic exercise, especially if performed in the morning, can significantly reduce the symptoms of depression. Our brain uses 25% of the oxygen we breathe. Walking outdoors, in fresh air, in nature gives our lungs an opportunity to replenish our oxygen, and our blood to carry that oxygen to our brain and body. If you are able to find a quiet country road or trail, you nourish your eyes and nose as well. By taking a walk in the morning, the benefits of this exercise last throughout the entire day. If you haven't been exercising at all, ease into it at first. Start with 5-10 minutes at first, and try to work up to 30 minutes daily. You should just barely break a sweat by the end of your walk. There is no need to prove anything or push yourself beyond your limits, and set yourself back.
Sometimes it isn't a lack of air, but rather something blocking circulation that brings us down. If you are able to do more exercise, the ancient and effective techniques such as Qi Gong* and Yoga all offer exceptional methods for aiding circulation of air, blood and fluids throughout the body and mind. Blockages can be mental, physical, emotional, social, marital, or occupational. We may not be comfortable or happy in our relationship, our job, or our social situation, finding ourselves more frustrated and angry rather than happy and fulfilled. However, we often cannot change others, but we may be able to change ourselves. These techniques refresh the whole person, mind, body and spirit. There are numerous classes offered on these methods. If you don't have the time to commit to a class, there are videos that can offer the very basic techniques. With any exercise technique, you may not see immediate results. Try to commit to exercising at least 5 days weekly for three weeks before seeing encouraging results.
Another avenue for helping with depression is nutrition. Breakfasts of donuts and coffee, a fast-food meal for lunch, and a huge meal followed by dessert at home for dinner is the nutritional pattern of our modern world. This burdens our body with an unbearable and heavy load of toxicity, such that all we can do is try do detoxify our system. Over time, our digestive and circulatory systems become sluggish, and our food is not digested but eliminated directly or stored as fat. Our organs suffer a type of depression and fatigue, unable to function properly. Some respond to the food excess in our culture by following a starvation diet. Fasting, raw foods, juices, and colonics can be effective detoxification techniques for extreme situations, or for short-term (around 3 days) for ridding the body of toxicity. When relied on as a regular part of life, they do not provide adequate nutrition to a starved body. The result is that your system is in a constant and unrelieved state of stress, putting a severe burden on the adrenals. Over time, the adrenals cannot provide the energy needed, and breakdowns occur, with depression a common result.
The basis for any diet is simple, whether you suffer from mild or moderate depression, fatigue, or anything else. Eating regular meals, at regular times, three times daily is the beginning. Overeating is strictly forbidden, so when you get up from the table, you shouldn’t feel heavy or bloated. Try to eat to 80% capacity. Eat food that grows in the earth, not something that was fabricated in a laboratory. (if the ingredients have numbers in them, or if it is a word that you don’t know, it probably came from a lab) A balanced meal is one that is freshly prepared and includes some grain/carbohydrate; fresh vegetables; and meat, beans or fish. After your meal, take a short walk (a Daoist recommendation is 100 steps) to facilitate your digestion.
In the event that these exercise and nutritional techniques are ineffective or unsatisfactory, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help with the symptoms of depression. Acupuncture is very effective in opening the flow of Qi (vital life energy) through the body and mind. There are acupuncture point combinations for treating all of the common symptoms of depression- irritability, mental dullness, insomnia or hypersomnia, lowered libido, hypochondria, and fatigue, among others. The experience of acupuncture is both energizing and relaxing at the same time, a welcomed combination for the depressed patient. Usually, the effect of acupuncture is felt immediately, but may last only a few days. A course of three to twelve treatments may be necessary to achieve a lasting and satisfying result.
Chinese herbal medicine contains several hundred individual herbs combined in formulas from one to over 20 ingredients. These formulas are subtler in their effect than western medicines, with their efficacy taking weeks or months to affect lasting change. Like acupuncture, there are combinations that can relax irritability, induce sleep, increase libido and energy, improve circulation, etc. These herbal medicines are not addicting, and they come from natural sources. The intention in using acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine is to treat both the "branches (the symptoms) and the roots (the causes) of the tree".
One last aspect of depression is will and intention. It is sometimes difficult to summon the willpower to get going in the morning, to initiate a new undertaking, to do much of anything. When this occurs in Winter, an especially inward time, it may just be a good time to sort through the past year, and prepare for the new one. It may be that these ideas need to percolate, with our intent focusing on new initiatives in Spring.
The analogy of the water glass offers some insight into intent and depression. The optimist sees the glass as half full; the pessimist sees it as half empty; the Daoist sees a glass with water in it. If we want to heal anything in this world, it can start with intent.
*I teach a Qi Gong class in Ukiah and Willits.