5 Strategies for Preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the Winter Blues

Winter is not my favorite time of year. The frosty temperatures and short days can make anyone (read: me) want to curl up under a huge blanket and hibernate until the warmth returns.

For those who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), winter can be particularly challenging. Those with the “Winter Blues” tend to become withdrawn, have low energy, and feel generally sad or irritable. They  also tend to engage in habits that actually reinforce their low mood as well, such as overeating and craving carbs (which leads to weight gain) and oversleeping.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
– Benjamin Franklin

While the Winter Blues usually clear up on their own once the spring rolls around, it can be fairly painful to manage that 3-5 month window while waiting for warm weather and longer days.

So what is the best way to combat the Winter Blues? Prevention.

And that means starting now while the trees are full of color and the temperatures are still warm enough for apple picking and pumpkin chunkin’ festivals.

So, here are our 5 Strategies for Preventing SAD and the Winter Blues:

1. Exercise 

I know, I know. Don’t quit on me already! I’ll keep this short and sweet. You don’t have to join a CrossFit gym or train for a marathon. You just have to do a little bit more than what you’re doing now (unless you’re the 2% that is already smashing it at the gym). Exercise releases all those feel-good hormones like serotonin, which is linked to our mood.

Take your dog for a slightly longer walk (trust me, he will enjoy it too!). Commit to doing a set up push-ups or crunches each day. Maybe even do a challenge (I personally love this one)! Or maybe even just commit to actually using that gym membership you’ve been paying for – just commit to twice a week. Even if it’s just to walk on the treadmill!

The point is, you don’t have to do morph into some fitness model, but you should do something.

2. Eat Clean

As we head towards the coldest part of winter, we’re also heading into the most gluttonous time of the year. The holidays are full of carbs and sweet deliciousness! But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Not only for our mid-sections, but also for our mental health.

Think of your brain like a car. If you give your car enough cheap fuel, over time it becomes less efficient and may eventually break down. Our bodies are no different. We can enjoy some sugary sweets and slices of pizza every now and then, but if that’s the primary fuels we’re relying on, we’re headed for a break down.

For more on how food affects our brains and mood, check out this Harvard blog post. 

Strive for the 80/20 rule. Treat yourself here and there. Go ahead and enjoy a slice of that sinfully decadent chocolate cake… 20% of the time.

The other 80% of the time, make clean, healthy choices. We know that processed sugars and carbs affect our mood and energy. So try eating unprocessed, lean foods (vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, chicken and seafood).

Click here for more information on food and mental health.

3. Get Some Sunlight 

There is a growing body of research that is finding a link between bright light, especially in the mornings, and improved mood. Our bodies take in sunlight (in the form of UV rays) and produce Vitamin D, which has been linked with a whole plethora of health benefits including our mental health. Unfortunately, it has been estimated that 70% of us are not getting enough Vitamin D!

I will be the fist to say this is easier said than done in the winter. When it’s cold, I don’t want to even think about being outside without being wrapped up in enough clothing to look like the Michelin Man. With all that clothing on, how do you get sunlight anyway?

If you’re like me, you thought, “Hmm, well maybe I’ll just sit in front of the window in the mornings with my face to the sun, sipping steamy coffee, and I’ll stay warm and toasty right from my comfy chair.” Spoiler alert: most glass windows block UV rays, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. Sorry!

If you’re completely against getting outside and spending some time in the sun during the chilly days coming up, there are a few other options.

Research suggests that artificial light may be just as beneficial. There are some really cool therapeutic grade light boxes on the market right now that you can use at your desk or in the kitchen while you’re cooking your (80% healthy!) meals. There is also an AMAZING light therapy alarm clock on the market that simulates a natural sunrise to kick start your day. This one is on my personal Christmas wish list this year!

Check out how Norway and Sweden are using light and mirrors to keep entire towns merry all winter!

Lastly, when all else fails, you can just as easily pick up some Vitamin D over the counter. Of course, always consult with your physician before taking anything and to determine how much you’ll need to see true benefit.

4. Pick up a new hobby

When we start feeling a little crappy, the tendency is to withdraw from other people and pleasurable activities. But this is the exact opposite of what we need, and only reinforces depression, poor mood and anxiety.

So, all we’re asking for is a little behavioral activation – that’s a fancy word therapists use to encourage people to get out and do more pleasurable activities that are rewarding for you. Doing things we enjoy releases powerful, feel-good hormones that stave off SAD and the Winter Blues.

And no, behavioral activation doesn’t have to mean you have to take up skiing or ice hockey this winter – although that would help embrace these chilly months ahead! It just means taking up something you’d enjoy doing. Think outside the box! What about taking up pottery, or glass blowing, or archery? The world is your oyster.

5. Plan a vacation!

Sometimes that weekly guitar lesson that you love isn’t enough. And most of us aren’t able to be Florida snow birds and head south for the winter months.

Planning a vacation somewhere warm to break up the winter can be the perfect solution. Plus, the excitement and anticipation around planning a trip good for the soul, too!

I often talk with my clients about our “buckets.” When we’re feeling healthy, nurtured, and supported, our buckets are full. As we get run down and overextended, the bucket starts to empty. If we go on too long, the bucket may run completely dry, which is where depression and exhaustion can rear its ugly head.

So take some time to fill up your buckets in preparation for this winter. And then make sure you’re doing things that pour into your bucket to keep it near full as the winter drags on.

What are some of your strategies for staying healthy through the winter? Comment below! 

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

– Winston Churchill

What is Equine Assisted Therapy, Really?

In a small grassy paddock, still wet with dew, a white speckled horse is trotting around with her tail held high. As you approach the fence, she stops to look at you. Her breath is quick and she is momentarily wary of you. After a brief pause, she begins to walk towards you with slow, deliberate steps. Her ears are forward and her nostrils are flaring, reading you for clues about whether you are safe. As you reach out your hand, her breath steadies and her eyes soften. She drops her soft mouth into your hands to say hello again, and it is time to begin.

This magnificent creature is one of a new collective of animals that is helping therapists treat everything from addiction to autism to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most of us are already aware of the invaluable benefit of dogs as helpers for individuals who are blind, deaf, diabetic, or epileptic. But we are only beginning to tap into the immense psychological benefits of working with horses.

The horse is the perfect mirror. By their very nature, they are highly emotional and intelligent beings. What they can show you about yourself can change your life.

Equine Assisted Therapy has been gaining recognition as a powerful approach to treatment that leads to profound healing and insight. Last year Selena Gomez opened up about her experience with Equine Assisted Therapy, and how it helped heal her anxiety and depression. She described Equine Assisted Therapy as “so beautiful… It was hard work, obviously… [But] a lot has changed. I feel a lot more centered, more accepting.”

So what makes horses such powerful healers?

The horse is the perfect mirror. By their very nature, they are highly emotional and intelligent beings. What they can show you about yourself can change your life.

As prey animals, they are vulnerable to attack. Safety is a priority to them. So to survive, they remain highly aware of their surroundings and in tune with their environment. So when someone walks into their space, they pay great attention to what that person is feeling and doing.

Horses see us for who we are, and they push us to be authentic and genuine.

Horses are not domestic like cats or dogs. They’re born wild and have to be tamed. You have to earn their trust. So the process of getting to know a horse is a highly unique opportunity to learn about relationships, communication, connection, and identity.

Horses are also highly social beings. The emotional part of their brain is very large and they form meaningful and complex relationships with other horses in their herd. When a person enters their space, the horses evaluate you for who you are in the moment. Horses can pick up on things we can’t. So when something is going on internally that you may be masking from friends, family, and colleagues, it won’t work in the arena. Horses see us for who we are, and they push us to be authentic and genuine.

Even if you feel intimidated by a horse’s size, and you walk up to him with a pounding heart and trembling hands, it is ok! I’ve seen one of our horses walk right up to a terrified child and drop his head down into the child’s chest for a reassuring hug. Our horses have an incredible gift for knowing what you need and for teaching you how to be your best self.

So how exactly does Equine Assisted Therapy work?

In all equine-related activities, including therapy, safety is the primary concern. In addition to the horses you’ll be working with, each session includes a team of two humans: a licensed Mental Health Therapist who is EAGALA certified (the gold standard for Equine Assisted Therapy) and an Equine Specialist. The Mental Health Therapist’s job is to work with you on your goals and focus on your healing and growth (Check out our EAGALA certified Therapists: Lynn Eskite-Tant, LCSW and Michelle Perry, PhD). The Equine Specialist is someone who has an extensive background with horses and knows our horses exceptionally well. Her role is to focus on the horses and what they are experiencing in response to your work. You can check out Ashley Basso, our Equine Specialist, here.

You may forget a conversation you had with your counselor or coach a few months later, but you won’t forget what happened when you stood in an arena with a group of horses.

This unique, team-based approach helps you learn about yourself and others by participating in activities with the horses on the ground. There is no riding involved, so it is much safer and you don’t have to have any prior experience with horses. Through structured activities, you are learning about the influence you have on the horses, the way they respond to you, and how that translates to life outside the arena.

How long does it take to start feeling better with Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine Assisted Therapy uses the healing bond you build with the horses to facilitate change, and therapeutic results begin immediately. You may forget a conversation you had with your counselor or coach a few months later, but you won’t forget what happened when you stood in an arena with a group of horses.

Because of the intensity and effectiveness of Equine Assisted Therapy, it is considered a short-term or “brief” approach to therapy. As your bond deepens with the horse, self-awareness grows and healing begins, which starts as early as the first session.

To learn more about what you can expect with our EAGALA accredited Equine Assisted Therapy program, watch this short video below, or reach out to us for more information at info@CTSAtherapy.com.

“One of the most painful parts of losing someone to suicide is the realization that their pain and hopelessness was so heavy that they felt they could no longer carry the load. Even more heartbreaking is the belief that this load was theirs to carry alone.”

The official kickoff of Mental Illness Awareness Week was Monday. That morning, I came across this picture of strangers clinging tenaciously to a man who was trying to throw himself off a bridge. By Monday evening, a friend we care for deeply had shared that his struggle with Bipolar Disorder was becoming unbearable, and he was overwhelmed with thoughts of suicide. Just a few hours later that night, my family was reeling from the news that someone else we cared for died by suicide earlier in the day.

Each year, millions of Americans struggle under the burden of a mental health condition. To honor the widespread impact of both those who suffer personally, and those who are indirectly affected by mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sponsors Mental Illness Awareness Week. Their goal? To spread awareness about the importance of mental health and to speak out against stigma around mental illness.

One of the most painful parts of losing someone to suicide is the realization that their pain and hopelessness was so heavy that they felt they could no longer carry the load. Even more heartbreaking is the belief that this load was theirs to carry alone. Family members, friends, and colleagues are left wondering – “How could I not know? How could I not have seen it? What could I have done differently?”

Here’s the thing about depression and suicide – well, about mental illness in general… We don’t talk. We feel alone. We feel like no one can understand, or like we might be a burden to someone else if we share our pain. We feel ashamed or embarrassed. We feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own. That, my friends, is stigma.

A new TV series aired last week – A Million Little Things. The pilot episode begins with someone who died by suicide. The friends, in complete disbelief, are trying to make sense of why someone who seems (at least on the outside) to have it all together would take his own life. Then someone says:

“Maybe he just lost sight of the horizon? I was watching this documentary on JFK Junior. You remember when his plane went down?… Kennedy was a pilot and he was flying at night and the clouds came in. His instruments were telling him which way was up but he didn’t trust them. The truth was right in front of him and he couldn’t see it. And he lost site of the horizon and nose-dived. By the time he realized what was happening it was too late. He couldn’t pull up… That’s depression.”

At times we all lose our way. This life hits hard. It holds no punches. We all stumble and fall – repeatedly. And sometimes the weight of our suffering seems incredibly heavy and unjust.

But if we all struggle, why are some of us choosing to go at it alone?

Kevin Hines, the most well-known survivor of a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge has shared that he was waiting for just one person to reach out and say something to him. That if just one person had stopped to ask if he was alright, he would not have jumped. No one reached out to him, and in exchange, he didn’t reach out to anyone either.

The gut-wrenching part? As soon as Kevin Hines jumped he realized it was a mistake. Incredibly, he survived and now he spends his life sharing his story. But he’s not alone. There are many survivors who have shared their story and report regretting their decision as soon as they started. They are the lucky ones. They got to “pull up” in time.

So I want to say something to you. To my friends, colleagues, family, clients, and the strangers I have yet to meet. This is something I wish I could say to our family member who suffered quietly, alone, before taking his precious life. Something I have shared and will continue to share with a friend who fights the good fight and struggles under the weight of his depression. Hold on. Don’t quit. I promise, this too shall pass.

And I want to beg you to talk about it. Tell someone. Take a deep breath and muster up just a tiny bit of courage and strength and resilience, and say “I am in pain. I can’t see the horizon any longer. I don’t know how much longer I can hang on. Please help me before I make a decision I might regret.”

Be vulnerable. Be brave. In this world of heartbreak there are good people who would give their last breath to save just one soul. I see it every day buried under the mudslinging and narcissism and vanity. All you have to do is reach out. It does get better. Nothing – including pain – lasts forever. There are people who can catch you. There are people who will smile under the shared weight of your pain. And someday, when you’re feeling stronger, you can share in their weight too.

All you have to do is reach out.

You don’t have to feel alone. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you’re thinking about suicide.

Experiencing a traumatic event does not mean you or your loved one will go on to develop PTSD.

Fear and anxiety are common reactions during and immediately after a traumatic event. Fear is actually adaptive in these moments, helping the body to defend against danger or avoid it, known as the “fight-or-flight” response. These innate and adaptive responses help to protect us from harm by flooding our body with the stress hormones we need to respond appropriately. Over time, when the body realizes its safe again, those stress hormones will stop pumping through your body and you’ll begin to feel the symptoms dissipate gradually.

Those who continue to experience those symptoms long after the traumatic event has passed may go on to be diagnosed with PTSD. People with PTSD generally feel those same feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety even when they are no longer in danger.

Fortunately, only approximately 7 to 8% of people will experience PTSD in their lives. Considering most of us will experience a traumatic event in our lifetime, these rates are very low.

There are a large number of factors that play a role in whether or not someone may fall into that category and go on to develop PTSD. The National Institute of Mental Health has identified a number of factors that might make someone at greater risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event:

•            Living through dangerous events and traumas

•            Getting hurt during the event

•            Seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body

•            Childhood trauma

•            Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear during the event

•            Having little or no social support after the event

•            Dealing with additional stress after the event (e.g., pain, injury, loss of loved one, job loss)

•            Having a past history of mental illness or substance abuse

 

But there is hope! The National Institute of Mental Health also recognizes a number of important factors that may reduce the risk of going on to develop PTSD following a traumatic event:

•            Seeking out and utilizing social support from friends and family

•            Participating in a support group after a traumatic event

•            Learning to feel positive about your actions during the traumatic event in the fact of danger

•            Having a positive coping strategy (i.e., a healthy way of getting through the bad event and learning from it)

•            Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear

Fortunately, many of the factors that reduce the risk of developing PTSD are things that can be accomplished with the support of a therapist early on after experiencing a traumatic event. Perhaps the greatest two predictors of health after a trauma are good social support systems and maintaining a hopeful, positive outlook.

If you’re struggling after experiencing a traumatic event, there is hope! Treatment with an effective trauma therapist involves education about symptoms, teaching skills that identify the triggers of symptoms, and learning skills to manage and reduce symptoms. Get started on your path to restored health today!

When most of us think about trauma, we tend to think about war, physical or sexual abuse, terrorism, major accidents, and natural disasters. These catastrophic events are often profoundly devastating, and what some refer to as large ‘T’ Traumas. They are extraordinary events that leave survivors feeling powerless and helplessness.

The first criteria required for a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence; these are typically large ‘T’ Traumas. Fortunately, these events are relatively uncommon, and the majority of us will be spared from these experiences during our lifetime.

Even among those who are exposed to a large ‘T’ Trauma, only a minority will go on to develop PTSD. For many people, their natural coping mechanisms kick in and the immediate reactions that occur naturally after a large ‘T’ Trauma diminish over time.

How to Know Whether it’s Time to Seek Help for A Traumatic Event

However, individuals do not have to endure one significant large-T Trauma event to be affected. There are a variety of situations that exceed our capacity to cope and lead to an inability to function at our normal levels. While these kinds of events are not inherently life-threatening, they most certainly feel threatening to who you are, what you believe in, and what you think about the world. These kinds of events are small “t” traumas.

Some examples of small “t” traumas include:

  • Divorce
  • Infidelity
  • Severe conflict with your boss, supervisor, or colleagues
  • Having a child
  • Legal trouble
  • Abrupt or extended move or relocation
  • Severe financial difficulty

For some people, one of these events may be enough to overwhelm their capacity for a prolonged period of time. For others, the accumulation of multiple small “t” traumas, especially in a short period of time, can lead to significant distress and trouble with functioning at work, school, or home.

These kinds of events are often downplayed as common experiences, and those struggling to cope sometimes feel ashamed or “weak.” But the reality is, we all struggle from time-to-time with the obstacles life throws at us. Part of healing and recovering from these obstacles includes acknowledging the adversity, leaning on support systems, and taking steps with the guidance of an expert to reclaim the impact it’s having on your life.

The biggest enemy when facing a large “T” or small “t” trauma is avoidance. People engage in a wide variety of behaviors in an attempt to reduce the distress or avoid reminders of the traumatic event (e.g., avoid watching the news, avoid public places, and avoid meaningful relationships). But the longer someone engages in avoidance, the more the distress grows. The only way out of trauma is through it.

But you don’t have to suffer in silence or face the trauma by yourself! There are treatments and techniques that can help. While there are no quick fixes or “cures” for what you have already endured, many people are successful in eradicating the impact of the trauma on their lives with the help of a professional. Plenty more have reported a significant improvement in the quality of their lives.

Reach out for help today and get started on your journey to recovery and growth!

Experiencing a traumatic event does not always mean you will go on to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, it is completely normal to experience fear and anxiety after something traumatic has occurred. But over time, these symptoms should start to dissipate naturally.

If you or your loved one survived a traumatic event and any of the following statements are true for you, it is likely time to seek professional help:

  • When disturbing symptoms persist 1 month after a traumatic event
  • When symptoms seem to be getting worse over time
  • When symptoms begin to impair social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning
  • When you start avoiding more and more people, places, or things so that you don’t trigger symptoms or a stress reaction
  • When feeling helpless or hopeless about your situation
  • If attempts to cope with the trauma lead you to engage in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., alcohol or drug use, withdrawing from friends and family, risk-taking behavior)

 

Treatment Options

The first step is finding the right trauma therapist for you. Your therapist should have experience working with trauma, specifically the kind of trauma you are looking for help with. Whoever you select should be someone you feel you can build a safe, trusting relationship with. Therapists are not one-size-fits-all! What will be the ideal therapist for your friend or partner may not be the best fit for you. It is completely fine to trial a therapist for a few sessions to find out if they are someone you can open up to. A good therapist will be supportive and create the environment you need to work through your struggles.

Once you’ve found the right trauma therapist, there are a variety of treatment options available that are evidence-based (i.e., well researched and found to be effective). Whether you want individual sessions or group sessions with others who have been through something similar to you, there is an approach that will bring symptom relief.

No single treatment is effective for everyone. It may take time to find the right fit for you. Talking with a professional that you trust (e.g., family doctor, local clergy, local mental health association) might help point you in the right direction.

Take one step towards reclaiming your health today and liberate yourself from the past events that may be haunting you. Make your health a priority. You are worth it.

Historically, trauma referred to exceptionally horrific events like torture or abuse that you personally experienced. But over the last few decades, mental health professionals have to come to recognize that trauma can include a vast continuum of experiences.

So how do you know whether you or a loved one is experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a related stress disorder?

The International Society for Trauma Stress Studies defines trauma as “shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threaten[ed] death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity.” As you can see by this definition, the mental health community now recognizes that witnessing violence or threats of violence towards others also meets the definition of a traumatic event. This reconceptualization means there are most of us will be exposed to at least one traumatic event over the course of our lives.

But if most of us experience a traumatic event at some point in our lives, why is it that only some people have PTSD?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5th Edition (DSM-5), a diagnosis of PTSD includes the following:

  • Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
  • Intrusive symptoms following the event, such as flashbacks, recurring dreams, or strong bodily reactions when exposed to triggers related to the event.
  • Avoidance of things that remind you of the event.
  • A negative change in thoughts or mood following the event.
  • Feeling hypervigilant or highly aroused (e.g., easily started, feeling “on edge,” difficulty sleeping) following the event.

If you or your loved one does not experience all these symptoms, they most likely do not have PTSD.

But don’t be mistaken… someone may not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, but they may still experience posttraumatic stress.

For example, Acute Stress Disorder may occur immediately after exposure to a traumatic event but generally resolves within 1 month. Symptoms that persist beyond that benchmark are likely to be more appropriately labeled as PTSD.

The key to appropriate diagnosis and treatment is time. Getting into treatment soon after a traumatic event may lead to a better prognosis. Whether you meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD or another stress-related disorder, there is always room to work on improving your health and liberating yourself from painful, traumatic experiences. So reach out to someone today and start your journey!

 

What if I told you that your quest for happiness is making you miserable?

Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. And think deeply… What makes you happy? And I’m not talking about the momentary, fleeting euphoria of buying a new car or landing the deal you’ve been working on for the last few months. I’m talking about true contentment that lasts through the highs and lows of life.

The problem with focusing on the pursuit of happiness is its elusive nature. Dr. Anthony Grant, Director of Coaching Psychology at Sydney University once wrote that happiness is “highly valued, relentlessly perused, rarely experienced. Ironically, the harder we try to buy, seize, or closet happiness, the less likely we are to be happy. Indeed, even talking about “how we can be happy” often leaves us with a sense of dissatisfaction.”

Emily Esfahani Smith tackles the problem of pursuing happiness and what you should be chasing after instead from the TED stage:

Emily Esfahani Smith – There’s More to Life than Being Happy

TED2017

So if you pursue anything, pursue these four pillars: Belonging, Purpose, Transcendence, and Story-Telling. There’s something extraordinary about losing yourself in the service of a greater purpose, and then finding your true self in the community and meaning that is created.

When you think about all of the things that had to align for you to be in this moment right now, it is truly remarkable. Dr. Ali Binazir does the math and it turns out that the probability of your birth is one in 102,685,000, which quite literally makes you a miracle!

 
So take a moment to cultivate gratitude for the air that you have in your lungs and how incredible it is that you are here in this moment right now. And start taking steps toward finding what it is you are here to accomplish with this precious life. You are alive for a reason. Find your meaning and you will find true happiness.