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How to use meditation to overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder

How to use meditation to overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

The change of season is upon us, and with that sometimes comes a change of mood.

In Australia, we are currently in autumn, where the days are getting shorter and the colder weather is coming. For some of us, the diminishing daylight will have a huge impact on how we feel.

I have been impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for most of my adult life, and I am so grateful that meditation helps counteract the dampening of my mood.

Research confirms that meditation, through changing the structure of our brains and the pattern of our brainwaves, increases the production of serotonin – an important mood-enhancing chemical.

The beautiful fact is these changes don’t take years to happen, they can occur in just weeks of regular meditation practice.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

In short, when the weather gets gloomy, so do you.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, with the apt acronym of SAD, is a form of depression, which begins and ends at the same time of year, corresponding to the colder seasons, which have shorter periods of daylight and sunlight.

Who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder and what are the symptoms?

According to Cleveland Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts young adults (18- to 30-year-olds) more so than older adults, and women are affected more often than men.

About 5 per cent of adults in the US (approximately 16 million) experience SAD, while an additional 10 to 20 per cent of people experience the ‘winter blues’.

As SAD is a form of depression, the symptoms are similar and include:

  • fatigue (often extreme fatigue)
  • anxiety
  • an unyielding sadness
  • increased irritability
  • changes in appetite and weight
  • trouble concentrating
  • low energy and heavy limbs
  • sleep issues
  • loss of interest to socialise or do activities
  • reduced self-esteem.

What does it feel like? You want to hibernate until winter passes. You are lethargic all the time, cranky and impatient in ways you wouldn’t normally be.

You definitely don’t want to go outside in the cold, sometimes it feels impossible to get out of bed, and you want to hide away until the sun comes back.

How does meditation help with SAD?

Over the years, doctors have suggested I try a number of techniques ranging from special sun lamps to increasing my Vitamin D. But what I found works best for me, which no doctor suggested, is meditation.

When you search online for SAD treatments there are four common answers: light therapy, psychotherapy, antidepressants, and Vitamin D.

Yet meditation is an effective and wonderful alternative or addition to these treatments.

Meditation stimulates the release of serotonin

Serotonin stabilises our mood, and it’s often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’. Not having enough serotonin can cause the symptoms of depression and SAD.

Reduced sunlight can lead to lower levels of serotonin being produced in our body.

So, in those winter months, those of us impacted by SAD need to find other ways to boost our serotonin. This is why light therapy and antidepressants are high on the treatment list.

Meditation is another way to boost serotonin.

A study published in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, revealed that after only eight weeks of a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, MRI scans showed an increase in the size of certain parts of the brain stem where chemicals such as serotonin, and other mood enhancing neurotransmitters, are produced and released.

What does this mean? The more tissue in this area of the brain, the more efficiently it can produce chemicals to better regulate our mood.

To avoid the winter blues and the symptoms of SAD, it’s a good idea to start meditating before the season changes, perhaps increasing the regularity of your practice during the colder months to boost serotonin production

How to use meditation to overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Meditation changes our brain waves

For more than a decade, a research team at the Centre for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied 22 yogis as they meditated.

What they discovered changed the world’s perception of meditation, as they were the first to record gamma brain waves.

Our brains run on electrical currents and frequencies. There are five, from slowest to fastest being: delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma.

The gamma wave is the only frequency that occurs when all the different areas of our brain fire together, in harmony. Gamma waves are associated with moments of flow, insight, spiritual awakening and rich awareness.

But what piqued my interest is the fact that this frequency is also known for increasing levels of serotonin, reducing anxiety and improving mood – great for those of us with SAD.

Importantly, the researchers made an amazing discovery: all the yogis had elevated gamma waves, not just during the meditation but also before. The gamma frequencies were present for a full minute before the meditation, during baseline data collection.

What this means is these meditators experienced an ongoing state of gamma waves, even when not meditating.

Of course, these yogis have tens of thousands of lifetime meditation hours and no studies have been conducted to show at what point the gamma waves become a character trait for a meditator rather than part of a meditation state.

However, the results prove meditation has long lasting benefits and can change us not just during our practice, but afterwards too.

Meditation allows our parasympathetic nervous system to be the hero

Our parasympathetic nervous system is our rest and recover mode, the opposite to the commonly known fight or flight mode of our sympathetic nervous system.

Fight and flight are designed for us to escape from a threat. When we are in this mode our muscles are tense and our heart rate increases, our digestion shuts down, our breathing rate increases and we become very alert. Chemicals like adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol runs through the body.

This system often kicks in when our body perceives any kind of threat, not just physical, including the threat of failing or being embarrassed.

The daily pressures of work and social interactions in a modern world sees many people predominately in fight or flight mode. So much so, it is hard to turn it off, creating sleep issues and a multitude of mental and physical health issues.

Our rest and recover system, the parasympathetic nervous system, slows most things down to make room for healing.

Studies have linked depression to an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity and a decrease in the parasympathetic nervous system. Therefore, restoring this balance and allowing our rest and recover mode to be the hero for a while is important for those of us with SAD.

Meditation turns off our fight or flight mode and turns on our rest and recover mode.

Want to start a regular meditation practice?

If you are starting to feel those winter blues coming, or you want to decrease the symptoms of SAD, hit the mat and meditate.

Here are some tips below to begin a regular practice:

1. Start small

Begin with five or 10 minutes of meditation each day and build from there.

Choose a time that suits you, such as first thing in the morning or before you go to bed.

Sometimes it helps to start by counting your breath for one minute every day for one week, two minutes in the second week and so on, building to five minutes.

2. Have an accountability partner

Sometimes starting new habits with someone else not only makes it more enjoyable but assists when you need to support each other.

Your accountability partner doesn’t have to be a meditation coach; it could be a friend or family member.

3. Explore what works for you

Find some meditations online, join a meditation group, or try a variety of meditations to see what resonates with you.

4. Be kind to yourself

Allow yourself time to find your rhythm with your meditation practice.

5. Keep a journal

It can be really interesting to record what you experience during meditation and how you feel afterwards, documenting any changes you notice.

Journalling sometimes helps bring to your awareness the benefits of mindfulness you might otherwise not notice.

I hope meditation helps you as much as it has helped me. Happy meditating.

Kristina Garla

This article was written by Kristina Garla, a meditation teacher, writer, certified Wayapa® practitioner and rebirthing breathwork facilitator.

Kristina holds space for people to heal and connect to themselves, the earth, their story and breath, working with individuals, groups, communities, schools and workplaces to foster wellness in the world.

Learn more at kristinagarla.com