Seasonal Affective Disorder

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

The leaves have turned and dropped, and perhaps our minds and spirits have followed as we say goodbye to yet another (alleged!) summer and gradually slip into winter. There are countless ways in which our minds and bodies change with changes in our environment. One of these is due to the fact that the further north we live the less light we receive through the winter. And the further north you go the greater the number of people in the population who suffer emotionally through the winter.

More serious than the winter distress of Leaf hockey fans, but perhaps just as predictable, is a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD for short.

SAD includes increases in appetite and weight, more fatigue and sleepiness, problems concentrating, irritability, social avoidance and feelings of anxiety and despair. It sounds a little like our bodies are trying to hibernate. SAD may affect about 9% of us and about 25% more grump through winter with a milder form, the Winter Blues. There is no seasonal variation in other mood disorders such as bipolar disorder or post partum depression.

These general, categorical signs of SAD don’t give us a very vivid sense of what suffering SAD is like, just as a neat list of salmonella symptoms doesn’t touch the actual experience. Our experience of anything is always unique. Some people feel too withdrawn and flat to be festive through the holiday season, troubled with the question, “Why?” People say they feel “shut down”, “weighed down”, and “bleak”. It’s like living with an extra 50 pounds in your backpack; it quickly feels too hard to function at all and the wish to drop out of everything can take over.

How come? A brain hormone, melatonin, helps regulate our night-and-day rhythms, among many other things. Light may regulate the manufacturing of melatonin through connections from the eye to the pineal gland in the brain. Also, seasonal changes in retinal function are found in people who suffer SAD. People with SAD don’t build melanopsin, a photopigment chemical in our eyes, as effectively, but extra light seems to correct this genetic difference.

So it seems that light is a drug, an external agent that regulates our inner world. Since Dr. Norman Rosenthal first described SAD 25 years ago (his book, Winter Blues, was revised in 2006), light therapy has been shown to be very effective as a treatment. This involves sitting with a light therapy box that provides bright, full spectrum light for 30 – 60 minutes each day. Light in the morning may be best.

A study hot off the presses found that light therapy does only some of the job of addressing SAD. How we feel and think about winter itself plays a big role too. Many people just have a cheerless mental set when it comes to winter. This mental set creates a cold environment inside their head, full of chilly grumbling gloom (“friggin’ snow … I can’t stand this … what’s more miserable?”). Reducing our mental bellyaching and self-criticism significantly helps to relieve SAD.

What to practice? Light therapy is a good way to go. Do a little more research and look into the light boxes that are available on the internet market. Get out for a walk in the light of day, every day if you can. Lift your face to the sky and drink in the light. Definitely get more physically active, even if you don’t like it. And check your mind’s commentary and criticism, because SAD may be one more example of our mind making us miserable.

Quicksand, Serenity and Acceptance

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We often think of the pains and difficulties in our life as “problems”. Just thinking about something as a problem might set it up in our mind as something that therefore needs to be eliminated, gotten rid of. The nasty boss, the illness, the past trauma – the voice inside growls, “That pain is not welcome in my life!”

In protest our mind chants, “Why did this happen to me?” Have we ever received a good answer to that question, “Why me?” We ask that question not because we want to know the cause and effect. It’s really more about how unfair and unwanted this pain feels.

What goes on inside when we protest and try to change what has already happened? As we gnaw away on the injustices, abuses, slights, betrayals, and hurts that life inflicts on us, we’re churning and stressing. But when we fight with our private experience, who is the fight with? Trying to get rid of a problem or symptom usually just creates more problems and symptoms, more suffering.

I don’t know if you’re keeping score at home, but this is something that we do all the time. Even so, the wise part of our mind, dressed in shimmering robes or, in my case, an old bathrobe, knows that we’re trying to achieve something we can’t – we’re trying to change history. The really gutsy, courageous, tough and quite healthy way to go is to practice acceptance. From the more trivial (to accept that you’ll never have a perfect body) to the more urgent (coming to terms with trauma or chronic illness), acceptance is a wise and foundational part of being well.

Remember those old Tarzan movies when the bad guy gets caught in the quicksand? If you struggle, which your survival instincts scream for, you’re a goner. But if you patiently accept that you’re in it and relax, you float on the surface.

And so acceptance can feel foreign and even wrong. On the surface of it, acceptance goes against the grain. It may seem passive, submissive or illogical. For physical changes to occur something physical must happen – the garbage doesn’t put itself out. But that logic may not transfer over to mind because there’s lots that gets hidden from our conscious awareness.

Mostly, what gets hidden is our massive wish to not feel pain, our wish for things to be other than how they are. Like a magnet, we’re pulled to what feels good and (with the magnet reversed) repelled by what feels bad. And so our mind might rant about ‘how unfair’ and try to get rid of the dirty deal, searching for who’s to blame – stressing ourselves into more suffering.

These habits of mind can make a bad situation worse. Our mind senses the original pain and then cranks out a whole pile of suffering.

The wisdom of acceptance is embedded in heaps of clichés (think of spilled milk) and offerings such as The Serenity Prayer – “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’d pick at this a little. I’d argue that in life it takes alot of courage to accept what’s true. I’d argue that only when we accept what is true will we then feel some of that serenity, not the other way around.

So I’d change the Serenity Prayer (is nothing sacred?!) to a Serenity Practice: “I’ll suffer less if I change the things that I can change and intimately accept the things that I can’t, while practicing the wisdom to see the difference.”


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Sleep is only beneficial when you wake up. That’s not only true in some funny way but it’s also a great metaphor. Our life and much that we experience may only be of value to us in terms of our psychological and physical health when we wake up to it.

The person who you are today is the lifelong interplay of your genetics and your life experience. This interplay shapes the workings of our bodies, minds and behaviour. We learn a mind-boggling amount and that learning is critical to getting by, surviving, coping, thriving. But it’s not all pearls and gems. Some experiences are more like slivers than gems. Some of these slivers are sharp irritants and others may be large and dangerously placed.

Our body ‘knows’ how to heal a cut. But a sliver keeps that healing from happening. When you have a sliver you have two ways to go – in or out. If you leave it in you’ll have to protect it from getting rubbed, which would feel like the original injury. A bunch of slivers left in your hand would require some pretty complicated changes in how you go about your daily activities. Just getting ready in the morning using only one hand would be a challenge best left for Mr. Bean, but over time you’d learn how to use your knees and elbows in whole new ways.

Removing slivers hurts for sure and requires some bravery, but afterwards we’re as good as new.

Many of the past emotional injuries in our lives are like slivers, sharp, deeply painful and still lingering. And if we don’t face them they continue to cause pain and complication.

We automatically change how we live so as to protect those ‘slivers’ from being rubbed, without even knowing it. We get anxious about all kinds of situations because our mind rapidly registers how close each situation might be to rubbing a ‘sliver’. When we’ve suffered loss or have been abused, bullied, abandoned, belittled, we might instinctively shy away from situations that have any similarity at all to the original injury. We may feel anxious public speaking, going to a new class or a party, being touched, returning a phone call, going to a family dinner, talking openly with our boss, asking someone out on a date. We get sick with stress and our life gets more complicated and smaller as our mind-brain automatically navigates around and away from all the possible brushes with past injuries. We get bent out of shape, make mountains out of mole hills, lash out or freak out or seem ‘sensitive’, and we may not know why. All the juggling and wiggling we do to keep our slivers safe can cause even more slivers through lost opportunities, embarrassments and uncomfortable questioning and challenges. And still the original slivers remain.

If we were lucky enough to have attentive and supportive parents, we received protection and comfort and were helped to work with our injuries, learning that we can face them and feel better. Even so, wonderful and attentive parents may miss things, like school yard jabs and our private worries. When we’re not so lucky, the world and our own families can inflict terrible injuries, and we may not learn how to face pain at all.

Any and all healing of life’s injuries requires that we pay courageous attention to them. That’s the way our experience can “come on line” in our mind-brain and get sorted out. It does hurt. It can sometimes be overwhelming to look with awareness at our traumas. The idea is to go slowly, respectfully, kindly, safely, with someone.


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Let’s take a break from our usual consideration of stress and the human mind and travel to a new topic – holidays.

The beach, the backyard, the summer fair, the road, the lake all take us away from the routine of work and school, interrupting the rigid patterns of life. The sense of relief that comes from legitimately vacating the stresses of work schedules, pressures and demands makes summer holidays a cherished landmark.

Family vacations contribute to healthy family functioning. Healthy holiday-time together acts as a kind of glue, promoting family bonding and communication and the emergence of new identities (Hey, mom actually knows how to have fun!). This cohesiveness isn’t some sort of mushy frill that we can do without. Family bonding is deeply healthy for teens and parents alike, reducing the incidence of just about every calamity you can imagine. Pre-holiday, as the members of a family dwell in their individual ruts, the barriers from work and school, technology and emotional avoidance chop a family up. The healthy holiday shifts the focus to shared experience if not to each other, giving time and space for loved ones to reconnect, joke around and open up.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to ‘healthy’ holiday time. Many people see holiday time as an opportunity to set personal bests for getting drunk and stoned or worse. Addiction researchers are quite concerned by the impact that binging holidays have both in the short and long term, particularly with young people. During resort holidays, alcohol and drug use increases significantly for both habitual users and those who refrain at home. That hangovers just get worse as the drinking days wear on says our bodies detest the toxicity, and that a holiday from the holiday is needed.

But increased intoxication is not restricted to any one age group. Advertisers have been clearly teaching us that the good life requires a flow of alcohol and, by extension, drugs. And so vacationers obediently shop the LCBO. While sun screen protects us from the raw rays, protection from the high levels of social pressure isn’t so easy. We wish to belong, and shading ourselves from the social demands to get wasted can be a challenge. Reminding ourselves often of why we’re taking a holiday is one way to keep to ourselves on our own path.

Does a holiday do a good job of smoothing and soothing? Studies have shown that levels of stress and burnout do decrease heartily during a holiday. For the most part we feel better physically and emotionally, sleep better, get along better. For how long does the relief last? Not as long as we’d like. After 3 weeks most of us are back where we left off, indicating that relief fades as quickly as a tan. But the more recuperation we experience during the holiday, the more we’re protected against post-vacation workload stress.

I find it interesting that studies show that more conscientious workers have better moods during holidays, as if taking a break with a clear conscience is cleaner. Here, the rich just get richer. So to get the most out of our holiday it looks like we should get our work done, tie up the loose ends, and resist starting the holiday before it begins.

When you’re planning your upcoming holiday, consider the opportunity at hand. If you’re taking time with your family, look at how you might use that time together for togetherness. I found no research telling us that how much money we spend matters. Whether it’s playing monopoly or travelling to new places, it’s how we vacation that matters.

When We Suffer Abusive Treatment

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. David Lykken of the University of Minnesota says that the evidence tells us “that most of the 1.4 million American men currently languishing in prison would have grown up to be tax-paying citizens and acceptable neighbours if they had been switched in the nursery and sent home with a mature, law-abiding married couple rather than with their biological parent or parents”. By “mature” he’s referring to parents who love and care for and protect their children.

The complex harm to psychological development caused by child abuse and neglect sets a course for a big range of big problems – relationship instability, violence, addictions, physical and mental health problems, you name it.

The neglect and abuse of children is a product of generations of conditioning. If you want to shine a light on why a parent may be rarely or persistently abusive or neglectful, you’ll often glimpse the next layer of insight by looking at the parent’s parents, and then at their parents.

When we, as children, suffer abusive treatment and a life that feels dangerous we all reflexively use what we have to protect ourselves and to just survive. Leaving home or calling a responsive grown up is not always an option that a distressed child can muster. Kids are often left to their own meagre adaptations to manage their life.

One protective adaptation is for kids to pay careful and ongoing attention to the abusive parent. Kids can then shift their own behaviour in order to modulate the state of mind of the distressed parent. By “being good” somehow, some control and safety may be had. And the felt reason is to be safe, to be accepted, if not loved.

But vigilance is not just something someone does now and then – it becomes a way of living born of the need to be safe. So paying rigid attention to the Other becomes a deeply ingrained pattern for distressed kids, a habit that we don’t even know we’re strengthening through repetition. It’s automatic. And we grow up that way.

To not pay attention to the Other but to pay attention to yourself can be dangerous because when the guard gets let down you might be open to a new kind of attack. Scolding “What’s wrong with you?” would do the job, but sharper sticks are easily at hand. The internal reaction to one’s own emotion then becomes complicated instead of being one of acceptance. Kids may be ‘taught’ to feel ashamed of their own emotions, and so there can develop an internal sense that our own emotion is wrong, bad, awful, disgusting.

And so yet another way we commonly protect ourselves is by keeping our emotion hidden even from ourselves. Children experiencing frequent fear may use and over use their natural ability to space out, slipping away from awareness to nothingness. No feeling, no problem. An emergent problem here is that children don’t learn about their emotions and how to tolerate, regulate and know them, a problem which can extend through adulthood.

These and so many other ways of protecting ourselves and trying to get needs met become an automatic way of life that we carry on into adulthood. The emotional infrastructure from childhood results in the understandable tendency to live our adult life with other people in ways that are similar to our developmental history.

Our development doesn’t end with childhood. Hopefully those unfortunate early relationships will be supplemented by the loving aunt or teacher or friend’s mother, or by later healthy relationships that help to undo the earlier abusive conditioning. It is indeed never too late to face and to work on your life.