The SAD Truth: Fall and Winter Can Make Us Sick

Here’s a quick quiz.  What is a snowbird?

a) a relative of the blue robin that only breeds in cold weather

b) a female hockey player

c) a fan of Edward Snowden

d)  someone from a cold or overcast climate who travels (or rather, flees) to a warm climate when winter starts to hack its ugly phlegm

Yep, if you guessed d), then you’re not so affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to no longer be thinking straight.  The fact is, a lot of people start to feel depressed this time of year, and they can’t explain why.  They blame it on summer vacation being long gone; on dreading the holidays for whatever reason (having to see relatives they don’t like, or being reminded of a deceased, beloved family member) or on whatever is most obviously dysfunctional in their lives (crummy job, marital problems, weight issues, etc.).  All those excuses… when really it’s about the weather.  Our environment.  Yes, our surroundings have a huge impact on us, no matter how used to them we are.  If your scenery looks as bleak and lifeless as death on a popsicle, then you’re just not going to feel as good as you normally would.

SAD is the butt of many jokes, and it is also underdiagnosed — particularly (surprise!) in warmer climates.  Why?  Because even people in places like California and The South can be stricken at this time of year by the short days and relative lack of light.  In other words, it doesn’t have to be 30 degrees out for you to have difficulty waking up in the morning, difficulty completing tasks, a sense of hopelessness, and lack of energy.  And if you didn’t blow all your vacation time and money this summer, it can be very, very tempting to make like a snowbird and FLY as soon as possible to the nearest palm-tree studded destination closest to the equator.  Should you feel bad or guilty over this? No way.  Thousands of people are booking trips right now to the Caribbean, South America, South and Southeast Asia, and even Africa — and when it comes right down to it, they’ll admit: the weather made me do it.

So what if you can’t afford to get away as November and December loom depressingly near?  Well, there are some practical changes you can make to your life to start feeling better.

Change rooms in your home.  Step back for a moment and ask yourself if you’re relaxing or working in the darkest room in your house or apartment. Can you move to a place that has more southern exposure?  I know someone who moves her desk from her bedroom to her dining room every fall to “follow the light.”  It’s a lot easier to move some furniture around to improve your well-being than to see a shrink.

Divide your activities into indoor and outdoor.  If you live somewhere that averages about three hours of sunlight this time of year, be prepared to seize those hours to do what you want to do outside.  Pay your bills when it’s gray as sludge out — and be ready to pull your yoga mat onto the back deck when you see that glimmer of hope in the sky.

Go out at night.  It will hardly matter if it looks depressing outside or not.  The bright lights of your city (or even your small neighborhood) can be incredibly uplifting.

Use a light-box.  Light therapy involves exposing yourself to a special incandescent lamp light-box which simulates the sun.  They take up much less room than they used to and average about $50-$75.

I live in California where these light-boxes can be very difficult to find in stores.  Thank goodness for Amazon — now I have the same buyer’s opportunity as all of you out there from Minnesota, Ontario, and the UK.

Stay as warm as possible since being cold or chilled will aggravate your intolerance for bad weather.  Then get back to work — there’s still time to save up enough to go to Bermuda in February.

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Crummy weather isn’t going to inspire you to hang presents from trees.  Know when SAD is getting you down — and learn what to do about it. 

How to Avoid Post-Vacation Depression

Here’s a quick quiz.  Which of the following do you do when you get back home from a spectacular trip abroad?
a)  go to bed, even after you’ve recovered from jet lag
b)  have a beer (or two or three) and ignore your pile of bills for a week
c)  turn on the Travel Channel and leave it on (after you’ve gone back to bed)
d)  look around your home with subtle disgust and distaste
e)  two or more of the above

If you have a slight grimace on your face, keep reading.

Let’s be honest, if not dramatic: bringing your vacation to a close can be a rewarding, emotional, and draining experience.  You may feel euphoric, proud, reborn, grateful, fulfilled, and like a different person.  After you’ve seen, done, and been a part of many incredible things abroad, it can be hard to move on – and even more challenging not to slip into a major funk as you compare your vacation lifestyle with the realities waiting at home.

Here are some ideas for preventing post-trip doldrums from turning into a real bout of depression.  While they’re not going to make you feel as great as you did while dining in London or Rome, you might find yourself feeling as good or even better than you did before you left for your trip — and with some energy left over to dream about your next getaway.

Manage your Restlessness. Traveling comes with a certain intensity and compression that can be difficult to unwind from.  It also has the effect of “slowing” time, since you often do more different and eye-opening things in a single day than you might in a week at home.  When you return, the restlessness you get from not doing something “new and different” can be downright unnerving.  This restlessness usually goes away within three to six weeks of settling back into your everyday life.  If you have the time, try taking smaller day trips in the weeks after your return to wear it off.

Become More Active.  When you travel, you might realize that you’re not in the shape you thought you were, and as you gradually increase your fitness level during your trip, you may notice how much better you feel.  This can inspire you to join a gym or take up a sport (including one you tried on your vacation) when you return.  Becoming more active will not only make it easier to be in shape for the next trip; it can give any mounting depression a cheerful kick in the face.  You may also conveniently lose some of the weight you gained at that last round of restaurants in Venice.

Clean Your House.  Sound like an odd suggestion?   Besides being obviously practical, cleaning your house can help you clear your head and reconnect with your usual surroundings.  Your own home can feel unfamiliar and even strange after you’ve been through four or five hotel rooms in a row.  Doing some cleaning will also help you find physical (and emotional) space for everything you brought home so you’re not tripping over your half-unpacked suitcase every time you meander to the coffee table for your copy of Conde Nast Traveler.  Finally, you may start to redecorate with small things you bought on your trip, such as placemats,  pottery, and wall hangings, so that you’re spreading the joy of your vacation around you, literally.

Clean OUT Your House.  Living out of a suitcase can make you realize just how little you need to lead a full life.  A lot of people are inspired to unload a number of little-used items from their home after they return from vacation, and find it convenient to host a garage sale or sell items on eBay in order to make money for the next trip.

Having fewer possessions can also focus you more on your present life, and give you a far greater sense of freedom.  And making a nice chunk of money to put towards Tokyo or Hong Kong is going to do wonders for your mood.

Start a New Hobby.  During  a trip you’re exposed to a myriad of new and different things – or the same things that you are used to, but in a different context.  A common hobby you may take up after returning home is learning how to cook a certain ethnic food, or studying the language of a place you plan to revisit.  Such things often need only a modest investment in time or money, and give you that exhilarating feel you get while on a trip — of doing something for the first time.

Make New Acquaintances and Friends.  To relive positive memories, you may be unable to resist telling others a lot about your trip – even if you’ve never shared much of anything with anyone.  Since people are generally curious to hear firsthand experiences of other places and cultures, your chances of being rebuffed  are pretty minimal.  To coworkers and people who don’t know you well, you become known as “the traveler,” which makes a great icebreaker every time you see someone that you didn’t feel comfortable talking to before.

And last but not least…

Keep Sharing!  A lot of travel bloggers post almost every day while they are abroad, and then wind down their posts or even come to a dead stop when they return home.  Don’t do this!  Save some experiences and photos to share after  you’ve started unpacking; not only will it “extend” your trip, but it can also take some of the pressure off your hectic touring schedule (let’s face it, blogging after a 10-hour day in Paris might not be something you can stay awake for).  And let’s not forget what travel and  blogging have in common: connecting you with the world. The more you connect, the less likely you are to get depressed.

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Honey, can we empty these bags and go right back out again?

Oh wait, we live in the real world.  And the real world isn’t bad; it’s what we make of it!