Counseling Keys

How counseling and its mental health focus aids in faster healing, recovery, adaptation, and overall satisfaction in career, family, and other relationships in one’s life.

Mother Nature's Impact on Mood and Creativity

Is the weather influencing you?

In 1557, Thomas Tusser composed one of the most enduring rhymes, "April showers bring May flowers." But what happens when storms and gray skies linger in May and winter kicks off in the the Southern Hemisphere? For some, it's a serious issue as the decreased amount of sunlight can incite melancholy and sadness. There's even a psychiatric diagnosis that uses SAD as an acronym - Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD symptoms include a loss of energy, inability to focus, cravings for sugar and "bad" carbohydrates, along with an overall sense of defeat and feelings of worthlessness. Is there hope for people with SAD or is this condition even more enduring than Tusser's popular rhyme?

Some theorists suggest that people who are emotionally influenced by weather are actually healthier because they're more in harmony with Mother Nature's natural rhythms. They suggest that the winter blues mimic the dormancy that some trees and shrubs experience. In addition, they point out that some animals hibernate and suggest some people need a similar respite.

Yet, the modern world goes on and doesn't seem to allow for hibernation in humans. Perhaps that's why western medicine has stepped in to help the half a million Americans that complain about SAD every year.

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The solution is light therapy. People can receive up to 30 minutes of light at an intensity of 10,000 lux (in lumination measurement). To contrast, your household lamps generally put off 100 lux whereas a bright sunny day can dose you with 50,000 lux or more. Researchers are investigating different exposure time periods and light sources to achieve maximum benefit. In one study, Columbia University researchers discovered impressive results by calibrating light exposure to natural melatonin rhythms. The difference revealed an 80% improvement in patients that had light exposure calibrated to their natural melatonin rythms as opposed to 38% improvement that underwent regular light exposure.

Clearly there is something to be said for leveraging natural body rhythms to light exposure. In addition, research seems to suggest that people impacted by SAD may be in harmony to Mother Nature like a deciduous plant because all of the subject's SAD symptoms decreased at the onset of Spring (or more consistent sunshine).

If you are someone that experiences SAD, maybe this can help you realize that you're not broken. Perhaps you are more in tune with Mother Nature and are more sensitive to her changing rhythms. If this is the case, it can help improve your mood when you stop beating yourself up for succumbing to seasonal blues. However, since you're living in the modern world and it's expected that you cheer up on the job and with your family, check out the Society of Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms for an added dose of sunshine. But before you run out to get your light therapy, please know that certain medications and conditions can cause retinal damage. This includes St. John's Wort (a natural herb for treating depressive symptoms), Lithium (used for bipolar treatment), Melatonin (a natural sleep aid), antipsychotic medications, and conditions like diabetes and retinal conditions.

Other tricks for working through the weather blues include journaling, creative writing, painting, sculpture, and other forms of art that are often enhanced by such feelings. Who knows, maybe the next thunder storm can incite you to compose a poem as lasting as Tusser's. "Rainy day blues bring creative views." (Okay, it's sunny right now, so maybe I need some inspiration in winter season.)

 

Kimberly Key is past division president of the American Counseling Association and author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle.

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