Beat the Winter Blues

By Leo Cardez

From PHN Issue 34, Fall 2017

As the winter approaches, I find myself getting tired and moody. It starts as early as September and gets really bad in January. Although I’ve never been officially diagnosed, I’m sure I suffer from some degree of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). As I look around my cell block, I don’t think I’m the only one. The good news is I’ve found that some small tweaks to my daily routine (tips and tricks) can help keep my spirits high.

  1. Try light therapy. It helps to be in the sunlight as much as possible — facing the sun for a few seconds at a time. If there is a lack of natural sunlight, keep your cell lights on, if possible, and/or hang out in the dayroom — wherever there is bright light.
  2. Meditate. Sit quietly for 3 to 10 minutes a day. As thoughts come up, try to let them go and just focus on your breathing. Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.
  3. Exercise early. It can help you sleep better, burn more calories throughout the day, and lower your blood pressure. Get a workout buddy to keep you accountable; keep a workout journal to track your progress, goals, etc. Short but high-intensity training exercises have shown the greatest effect in lowering depression (additionally, these have been shown to increase energy and improve blood sugar levels).
  4. Re-organize your box. Try some deep cleaning. Buy something new (book, shoes, etc.) and wear or use it. These activities can give you a mood boost.
  5. Go easy on the carbs. I crave “comfort food” in the winter; foods usually packed with carbs and sugar, but the short mood boost is usually followed by a tougher low. Instead, try to eat fruits and veggies, oatmeal, fortified cereal, beans, yogurt, low-fat milk, fish, dark chocolate, and coffee or tea.
  6. Don’t be a cell slug. Play games. Take a class. Bottom line: socialize.
  7. Don’t try to sleep the winter away. Keep a routine; wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. It’s best not to sleep more than 9 hours a day (including naps). It can help to keep your window clear, to allow as much sun as possible come morning.
  8. Smell something good, preferably citrus. Studies show that certain scents can stimulate sensory systems, giving you a boost of positive energy and helping decrease feelings of depression.
  9. If none of these suggestions seem to work, you may want to put in a request to speak to a therapist or try to find a person you can trust to talk to. If there is a support group you can go to, that can help. Depression is a serious mental health issue and can cause significant concerns for your mental and physical well-being.

A lot of people in prison have a hard time admitting they need help, but SAD is nothing to be embarrassed about. It affects 14 million Americans a year. Its root cause is the decreased amount of sunlight in the winter, which leads to lower levels of serotonin, which affects mood. You can be born with it, or not be getting enough light, or be stressed. With everything we as people in prison already have to contend with, over which we have little to no control, I’m glad this is something we can at least manage with some effort and creativity.  

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