As a hypnotherapist and Neuro-linguistic Programming practitioner practicing in the Seattle/Tacoma area of Washington state, every winter I see clients for Seasonal Affective Disorder. People experiencing SAD (also referred to as “winter depression”) may describe the following symptoms:
- Sleeping more than usual as well as disturbances in sleep
- Fatigue, loss of energy
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, helplessness, and guilt
- Diminished ability to concentrate or think clearly, indecisiveness
- Loss of libido
- Depressed mood, feeling sad or empty, tearful
- Less pleasure or interest in daily activities
- Noticeable changes in appetite, cravings and weight
Seasonal Affective Disorder affects an estimated 10% of the US population every winter. Specifically, the disorder is more common in higher latitudes—it is 7 times more common in Washington state than in Florida. In Alaska, the prevalence of SAD is 8.9 percent, with subsyndromal SAD coming in even higher at 24.9 percent. It is also higher among women and people in their 20s. Generally, estimates of the prevalence of the disorder range from 4 to 6 people out of 100, while 10 percent to 20 percent of the population may have milder forms of SAD.
While the specific biological mechanisms of the disorder remain unclear, SAD probably relates to the effect of seasonal light variation on humans—perhaps not unlike that of reproductive cycles and hibernation in some animals. Amounts of light can affect the levels of two key chemicals in our brains relating to our energy and mood; serotonin and melatonin.
When it gets dark, we produce melatonin that makes us feel sleepy. It’s simply a cue to let our bodies know we should be going to bed. The shorter and darker winter days take a toll on those with Seasonal Affective Disorder as they are producing much higher levels of melatonin than normal. So where melatonins helps us regulate our sleep cycles, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate our moods, memory, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, and libido. These functions are important to our wellbeing. Sunlight affects the production of Serotonin and when the days get shorter, we naturally manufacture less. People suffering from depression, including SAD, produce much lower than average serotonin levels.
There clearly have to be other factors involved than just the decrease in sunlight. If that was the case, more people would be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. A person’s diet (such as getting enough vitamin D), and their activity level undoubtedly play a role. While hypnotherapy has been shown to help stimulate the production of serotonin, I think there is another very important component to SAD that should not be underestimated. It is one that hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming are eminently suited to help with.
Our thoughts and feelings about winter, and this time of year in general play a major factor in our experience of SAD, which can also be said about depression as a whole. Our perception directly affects our reality. In the case of SAD, a person who is dreading the darker, shorter days, flu season, tighter finances and so forth, will have a different experience than that of someone who is focusing on the enjoyable aspects of the season - the leaves turning, kids trick-or-treating, shopping, and spending time with family and friends throughout the holidays.
Our brains are built to reference past patterns of behavior in any given situation. When it comes to pain or pleasure, we form vivid memories more easily and can ingrain responses and beliefs instantly in an effort to help us navigate our lives more efficiently. Some lessons or habits are formed over time with repetition, and some are formed more instantaneously. Both of these operating conditions can contribute to depression or SAD.
Just as anticipatory pain can cause someone to experience more tension or discomfort, dreading winter can contribute to SAD. There are neuro-linguistic programming and hypnotherapy techniques that can help break the cycle of your mind referencing the most recent or worst winters of your life as the days start to get colder and shorter. Instead of your brain thinking about what happened last year this time when it was cold and dark, you can instead be triggered to think of the best way to take care of yourself as each new moment arises. It’s better to rehearse a new pattern and attitude and integrate it into your mind as soon as possible during the season, or before the season even begins.
Hypnotherapy and NLP are modalities that help you to naturally break apart old neural networks responsible for patterns of thought that trigger unhelpful feelings and build new neural pathways for the internal responses that you actually want to be happening more automatically. We literally train your brain to redirect your view on this time of the year. Guided visualizations or exercises are done to help you focus on the best things to notice or to do that will help you feel better. Hypnotherapy allows you to experience a peaceful, meditative state which, in itself, can lead to more relief from the symptoms of depression or SAD. If you need help in this area, it’s certainly worth finding out how effective and beneficial hypnotherapy or NLP could be for you.