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Magazine Web Edition > October/November/December 2010 > Spiritual Living: How to Deal with the Winter Blues

Spiritual Living

How to Deal with the Winter Blues

Adjusting to short days and cold weather after life in India's heat requires planning, appropriate clothing and a sound body/mind paradigm



One of Chicago's most famous residents, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, recently extolled the city, saying, "If it weren't for the weather, everybody would live in Chicago!" As a fellow resident, I concur with her praise. Chicago is a dynamic city, full of educational, entertainment and family resources, with a diverse population and many beautiful Hindu temples and devotees. But during Chicago's winter season, which extends from the beginning of November to the end of March, I constantly struggle against a tendency to resent the weather.

Why do I live in a climate that can be bitterly cold, with minimal sunlight for days on end which prevents me from getting an abundance of fresh air and exercise? I have lived in cold climates in the United States my entire life--in Wisconsin (where I was born), upstate New York, and now Chicago, Illinois. One would think that by now, in my upper-thirties and with children of my own, I would have overcome wintertime negativity. However, when I open the newspaper to the weather section on a January morning and read the forecast--a high of nine degrees with a wind chill of negative thirty degrees--I cannot help but feel envious of those in warm-weather areas.

I sometimes think such people must consider us foolish to live where the winters are so long and harsh. I imagine them enjoying, year round, the activities that my children and I can only dream of during most of the year--going for walks, riding scooters, bicycling, rollerblading, visiting the park, playing outdoor games with neighborhood children, eating meals on our deck outside, swimming, playing in the sprinkler--the list is long. My husband, Brendan, is a passionate golfer, a pursuit abruptly halted with winter's onset.

When it's too cold to be outside and the ground has been covered for weeks with dirty, grey snow, when I haven't seen the sun for days, when I'm layering on heavy, cumbersome clothes just to stay comfortable inside our house, and spring is still weeks or months away--it is difficult to remain positive and to make the most of each day.

My struggle is a common one. Although some people find effective methods that enable them to remain positive, others succumb to the dreary weather and spiral downward into negativity and severe depression. This condition is often called winter depression, winter blues or cabin fever. At its worst, it is called seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Chicago psychiatrist Dr. Shastri Swaminathan says SAD is a subset of depressive and mood disorders triggered by a change in environment. Symptoms include indicators of depressive behavior such as lethargy, overeating, diminished concentration and social withdrawal.

How can we make the most of each day and move forward in our worship when simply coping with the weather demands so much of our energy? Let's look at some commonsense tips and insights for managing North American winters in a Hindu context. Winter offers its own unique benefits: it provides opportunities for meditation, discipline and inner reflection, and it allows us to connect to nature in a different way than we do in warm weather.

Keep Your Perspective

Swami Brahmarupananda of the Vivekananda Vedanta Center of Greater Washington D.C. tells us we should strive for equanimity--calmness and indifference. Whether the weather is pleasant or brutal, it should not disturb our equilibrium. Instead of becoming depressed, we should recognize and utilize the opportunities that inclement weather may present: while warm, sunny days allow us to be outside continuously and keep a frenetic schedule, winter provides time for tending to oneself and one's home.

When I view my household work as worship, as a chance to create a calm, peaceful environment for myself and my family, I can more easily remain serene and undisturbed when I am chasing after my toddler to put his socks and boots on, retrieving his hat from where he has thrown it behind the sofa, cleaning the snow that has been tracked inside the house or getting up early to shovel the driveway. Instead of seeing such situations as frustrating tasks and cumbersome chores, I can regard them as opportunities for worship. By pausing just a few seconds to breathe and reflect inward, I find I can maintain my awareness of these opportunities and my equanimity. I also find it very helpful to recite a mantra while picturing the peaceful murti of Lord Rama at our temple in Chicago.

Focus on the Positive

I find that the battle is half won when I simply refuse to complain. Where our words go, our mind will follow. The more we complain about something, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the more we come to believe it. Swami Brahmarupananda makes note that there is always some good aspect to a perceived bad environment. He tells us to seize that good and concentrate on that.

I was surprised this past winter when speaking to a friend who also lives in Chicago. We were talking on the phone on a particularly cold, but sunny, day. I expected to engage in the usual repartee of, "Try to stay warm!" when saying good-bye. Instead, she said, "Enjoy the beautiful sun today--it is making the snow sparkle like diamonds!" I carried her parting words with me throughout the day and related to the cold much more positively.

Stay Connected

In our family, we attempt to be outdoors every day for fresh air, even if only for a few minutes during harsh weather. When I watch my children playing outside in the winter, I am amazed. When bundled up appropriately, they are comfortable and enjoy the respite from the indoors. Some of their favorite winter activities are sledding, experimenting with snow at different temperatures, making snow forts or designs in the snow, and shoveling.

I also take inspiration from cold-weather countries, such as Canada, Denmark, Sweden--and many regions of the United States--which culturally embrace the cold and snow. People channel the cold weather to engage in activities such as ice skating, skiing, tubing, ice hockey, curling and sledding. Playing these sports represents a positive connection to the climate and can be rewarding in many ways.

Although I am not sports-inclined, I do continue on my daily walks in the winter. The walks are often shorter than in the summer, and frequently I must push myself to get my requisite fresh air and exercise. However, a brisk walk on a cold day can be a true pleasure, even exhilarating, especially after a fresh snowfall--so long as I am warmly dressed.

Worship

The divinity and life-giving powers of the sun must be recognized always; but during winter, when the sun is low-lying and elusive, I find myself mentally concentrating on it more than in other seasons. We must maintain our devotion to it. Reciting the Gayatri Mantra in the morning is particularly helpful, as it reminds us to meditate on the divine light of the sun and seek enlightenment.

Each morning, I do several sequences of surya namaskar while reciting the twelve mantras praising the sun that accompany the movements. This reminds me of my connection to the sun. My children are not ready to do surya namaskar first thing in the morning, but we usually set a goal of doing five throughout the day. Perhaps they will do one just before breakfast or while taking a break from homework.

Dr. Swaminathan cites Hindu philosophy and rituals as useful and beneficial in maintaining a healthy mindset. He says, "Core Hinduism, when compared to other religions, lends itself most to coping and dealing. Hinduism cultivates a mentality of thinking, learning and understanding--it is not just simply faith based. To be engaged with a guru, to welcome knowledge from that guru and interact and communicate with other devotees--all of these cultivate a supportive atmosphere for the individual. In practicing Hinduism, we listen to discourses that discuss things other than God's will. A lot has to do with taking control as opposed to being passive."

Be Aware of Biological Changes

The most severe form of winter blues, SAD, is due to actual biological changes in our bodies and environmental factors beyond our control. SAD or degrees of SAD are real, not imagined and not something which we can simply "snap out of." In the winter, the ultraviolet (UV) radiation arriving from the sun is significantly lower than in the summer. UV rays stimulate the production of endorphins, natural, morphine-like "feel-good" chemicals that boost mood and reduce pain.

There are several options for treating SAD or reducing its symptoms. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, thereby raising our spirits, even in the winter. Light therapy is a popular treatment in which a person receives daily, timed exposure to a very bright light. A specialized form of light therapy is "dawn simulation," using softer lights to wake up on dark winter mornings. Supplementing the diet with vitamin D (ordinarily produced by the action of UV light on the skin) is also helpful.

Dr. Swaminathan notes that treatments for aiding our mood should augment and assist internal efforts. He notes humorously, "You could sit in your room, in front of the computer and shine a light therapy bulb on yourself. You could also get in your car, drive to the temple and partake in the available light there. Going to the temple will literally get you out of the cabin."

The Ayurvedic View

Dr. Virender Sodhi, an ayurvedic and naturaopathic physician living in Bellevue, Washington (ayurvedicscience.com), concurs with Dr. Swaminathan. He explained, "From the ayurvedic point of view, winter increases the vata dosha, one of the three fundamental energies that govern our inner and outer environments. Winter is cold and dry and both aggravate the vata energy, resulting in dry skin, dry hair, an increase of aches and pains and sticky joints. Even heart attacks are more common in winter because of this disturbance in vata. The mental and emotional aspects of the dryness, as well as lack of activity, result in emotional irritability. One reason mother nature provides us with nuts and seeds in the winter is because they contain fats and oil. They alleviate the dryness of skin and lubricate the body by providing oil to balance the fat."

Dr. Sodhi continues, "When people come to me with seasonal affective disorder, I recommend light therapy and increase in vitamin D intake, which is a good mood lifter. Having a suitable light go on in the morning when you first awaken creates the 'dawn effect,' which triggers the pineal gland and stimulates the hypothalamus. I think our ancient rishis, in worshiping the sun at dawn, were aware of this. I recommend keeping this light on your desk while you work."

Seek Alternate Activities

One common theme that arose in discussions about avoiding the winter blues is keeping oneself occupied and interacting with others. When Swami Brahmarupananda first arrived in the US, he was a student in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His school schedule kept him busy and his mind fully occupied--he says there was no room for thinking about the challenges of winter.

Ashok Misra, who moved to Anchorage, Alaska, from Mumbai in 2007 told me, "The best thing to do in Alaska is keep yourself busy. You have to make your life like a schedule." Ashok does some outdoor activity, such as ice skating or skiing, after he is done with work. He also plays indoor racquetball and volleyball. He has found the best resource for managing in the cold--for all community members, including those needing extra support--is spending time together.

Dr. Swaminathan says he was totally immune to winter blues when he first arrived in the US. He and his wife would simply go out without thinking about the cold to engage in social, cultural or religious activities. He remembers going in November to watch Hindi movies at Chicago's McCormick Place; he would be wearing sandals and his wife a sari. They were not appropriately dressed for the cold, but that was of no consequence to them. He says, "Cabin fever was dealt with in that one did not have to have it."

But now, says Dr. Swaminathan, after so many years of living in Chicago and absorbing the "stay-in-the-cabin" mentality during the winter, he himself succumbs to cabin fever. He points out how culturally we can cultivate the winter blues--it is not only a biological phenomenon. For example, he says, many people in the northern US "hibernate" in the winter. Rather than going out and meeting others, or pursuing hobbies or extra activities, they simply watch television or become engaged with their computers.

Remember that staying content or combating cabin fever in the winter may not be easy. But around the globe, people come up against challenging environments and weather. My mother, who grew up in Agra, India, says she would be hard-pressed to choose which is harsher--Chicago's January cold or Agra's June heat (113*f). In utilizing these suggestions above, you can help to ensure that a challenging winter season is a productive and fulfilling time. In the Gita, Lord Krishna says to Arjun that he must learn to endure transient things, including cold and heat. Whoever is content with whatever comes his way, such a devotee is dear to Krishna. PIpi

Sonia Sweet Kumar (soniasweetkumar _@_ gmail.com) resides in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, with her husband, Brendan Fitzpatrick, and their three children, Rajkumar, Simran and Avinash. Sonia holds a master's degree in communication from DePaul University.


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