A Star Child Suffers Winter Blues

I am trapped inside a fishbowl which, in turn, is trapped inside a snow globe. Before moving to the Syracuse, NY area some 25 years ago, I never considered myself a son of “the south”. Having been born and raised in Baltimore, MD, we considered ourselves as a north-southern city if there is such a thing. But southern is now how I see myself. The further north I go, the more southern I become.

Winter is traditionally a tough time for me. I was a child of the outdoors, an explorer, experimenter, and a menace. During the calendar’s coldest month of January, the average high temperature in Baltimore is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In Syracuse the average high is 32 degrees. When you add windchill and lake effect snow on top of that, the affects of winter are a harsher assault on my genetic code. And these winters are long. Much longer than my soul can bear.

“Take up skiing,” they say. “Try ice skating or snowshoeing,” recommend others. For a Star Child born in May who believes the Universe’s greatest gift to mankind is the summer sun, you might as well suggest I swim with alligators. I remain obdurate in my refusal to embrace wonderland.

The deep cold of winter here has a profound affect on my psyche. It’s pretty enough; the snow that is. Postcard pretty even. But a 1 degree morning like this very morning in January is as equally disabling as it is beautiful. The near back-breaking snow shoveling and frozen limbs limit my exposure to 20 minuets of outdoor time. Enough time to shovel a path for my short-legged dogs to handle their business and enough time to create a trail leading to the bird feeders to care for my winged, wild pets.

Crestfallen with each snowflake settling on the ground, I’ve come to accept that I suffer from more than just “cabin fever”. That it is, more clinically speaking, Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. I didn’t need to spend money on a shrink to come up with that one either. The associated symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, hopelessness, and fatigue align closely with my personal experience. The noticeable mood swings, the desire to opt out of holidays, the crawling out of bed when I’d rather stay hidden beneath the blanket all point to SAD. And the only thing guaranteed to bring me true joy is a sunny day with temps above 70. The kind of day that I can wander about, soaking in views, receiving all that my environment has to offer. A seat on a park bench. A songbird composing notes. Wind rustling leaves. A walk around the lake. These are spirit lifting experiences for me.

Treatment options for SAD include exercise (it helps a bit); medications (which I refuse); and therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy chronotherapy, and light therapy (none of which soothes my inner skeptic). Instead I chose a far more expensive treatment option. My wife Angela and I purchased a ocean-side condo in Florida. And while the holiday spent there this year was nothing short of magical, here I sit in Syracuse in January on a 1 degree day lamenting winter.

I plan to hit the gym at some point today for a pick-me-up, watch a soccer match later for mid-day entertainment, and begin planning for my next 2 therapy sessions in Florida this coming March and April. All in an effort to devise a plan to survive my 25th winter in the Winterfell of North America.

There is no real purpose to this post other than for me to finally, after 25 years, give voice to my sadness and acknowledge my difficulties.

My wife is inviting me now to get a manicure and pedicure and, at this point, I’m willing to try something new. If you also suffer from SAD and have words of wisdom to share, I’m all ears.

Thanks for listening.

Mood Indigo – Part 2

 

Green Lakes Park
Green Lakes State Park

I imagine that the things that cause sadness also cause stress. As noted in part one of Mood Indigo, we as a society are a pretty blue bunch. We find less joy in our careers than many other societies around the world. Most likely because most of us are not doing what we really want to be doing. Hell, it may not even be an option for some.

Given the sad state we find ourselves cocooned in, adding stress to the picture can only increase the fragility of our mental being. But there are things that we can do to counterbalance the negative affects.

This is not new stuff but it is stuff we often forget about. I’m speaking of the power of green space. Researchers are discovering, with each passing day, that surrounding yourself with nature can be one of the most powerful stress-relievers available. And its mostly free.

Did you know that those who live in areas with the most amount of green space show lower levels of cortisol and their self-reported feeling of stress is lower than those who spend more time in urban settings?  Catherine Ward Thompson, director of the OPENspace Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland says that getting outside forces you to get a little exercise which is a natural energy boost.

It is said that focusing on natural scenes gives voluntary attention a rest and allows involuntary attention to take over and recharge the human psyche. In other words…chill the f*#! out!  Cities with high numbers of parks are reportedly having more success battling obesity and diabetes.  Even relatively passive contact with nature-such as viewing it from a window- lowers blood pressure and anxiety levels.

So what do you do?  It’s as easy as a walk in the park really.

You must find your go-to spot. I have 2 of them. While I do have windows in my office, one is roughly 4 feet off the ground and looks onto another building. The other provides a view of the landscape outside our building. I need only glance over my left shoulder for a glimpse of leaves and flowers bending to the force of a breeze. But on a particularly stressful day at work, I take a stroll across my University’s quadrangle. The trees, grass and ivy covered buildings provide a sense of peace and calming.

Syracuse University Quad
Syracuse University Quad

On a sunny day, when it is quiet there, it’s like floating on a cloud. And the affects are far from ephemeral. The peace stays with me for quite some time for the remainder of the day. I am also fortunate to have a rose garden just two blocks from my office. There I think through issues or think about nothing at all. Nothing but the wonderful variety of roses to behold.

My favorite thinking spot
My favorite thinking spot

Perhaps one of my favorite places in the world is Green Lakes State Park which lies just a mile and a half from my home. Acres and acres of woods, trails, two lakes and a championship golf course provide the perfect natural setting. I go often after work and on weekends to run, walk the dogs or quietly stroll and think. One of my favorite thinking spots is the bench pictured above.

The trail circles around both lakes and branches off too
The trail circles around both lakes and branches off too

A stroll on the scenic trail around Green and Round lakes is good for people watching or nature watching. Brief chats with other visitors is also an added benefit.

Fallen trees scattered about the shore line is beautiful in itself
Fallen trees scattered about the shore line is beautiful in itself

The park staff take great care in leaving things in their natural state which makes for a more authentic natural experience.

Good for family time
Good for family time

While I do enjoy my alone time, my more favored moments are when my family joins me on the journey. We talk and laugh and connect in ways that you can’t in front of the television.

These natural spaces need to be protected in order to preserve our own health. Our physical and mental health are dependent on them.

If you want less stress and more happiness in your life, don’t take green space for granted. In fact, be more strategic with how you incorporate it. Do anything that you would normally do inside on the outside. Eat a meal outside or trade a treadmill run for an outdoor run. Surf the net on your patio. Do you normally prescribe an afternoon coffee pick-me-up? Try walking on a nice day instead. Move a casual or work related chat with a colleague outdoors.

Spring and summers in the northeast are very short. I try to take advantage of as much outdoor time as I can. I am a much happier person when I do.

Do you have a go-to green space?  I’d love to hear about it.

Mood Indigo – Part 1

sadness

Hey guys.

If you’re feeling blue, you are not alone. A recent Galup study shows that American well-being has not improved in six years and actually took a tumble in 2013.  As a nation, we are a collective group of sad saps. Other reports suggests that 85 percent of Americans are unhappy in their current jobs. Where are you on the happiness continuum?

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find rewarding, life altering work. I’m not talking about success here. Many of us are successful by obvious financial measures, career progression and the amount of shit we collect. Many findings highlight that high percentages of professionally successful people and those with significant wealth are actually not happy. It’s shown, too, that financial and career success could actually be hindering our happiness and well-being.

Jackie Ruka, author of “Get Happy and Create a Kick Butt Life!” says that as a society we have gotten it backwards: “it’s happiness that leads to success not vice versa.” Some forward-thinking companies like Zappos, Google and Pfizer work to include “happiness” as part of their company culture.

You are unlikely to make a drastic career move tomorrow so what can you do to eradicate the blues?  Ruka offers these scientifically studied happiness strategies:

  1. Savor ordinary events. Study participants who took time to do this showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.
  2. Avoid comparisons. Why are you worried about what someone else has? Focus on your own personal achievements instead of making comparisons to others will better impact your happiness and self-esteem.
  3. Put money low on the list. According to researchers Kasser and Ryan, those who put money high on the priority list are at greater risk for depression.
  4. Have meaningful goals.
  5. Make friends and treasure family. Social capital is important to well-being. Just make sure that they are genuine and meaningful. Lose the losers.
  6. Take initiative at work. Make your work more rewarding.
  7. Fake it until you make it. Act happy until you are happy. Studies show that this actually works.
  8. Keep a gratitude journal. I like to keep a mental running list of things I’m thankful for.
  9. Get Moving. According to a Duke University study, exercise may be as effective as drugs in treating depression.
  10. Serve others. Helping others, volunteering, donating goods and services results in more health benefits than exercising or quitting smoking.

So don’t wallow in the blues. There are things that you can do to improve your mental health while you develop a way to improve your career situation.  Have you found the secret to happiness? What suggestions do you have for the rest of us?

Part 2 of Mood Indigo will be about controlling your stress and mood through environment so please check it out.  Credit for much of this information goes to Stephanie Fisher at Kern Communications and Jackie Ruka, author of “Get Happy and Create a Kick Butt Life!”.