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  Winter's better with a palm tree
This miserable weather! I had to do something
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

[Photo: The Associated Press]
The signs of seasonal affective disorder include feeling tired but not being able to sleep, eating more (or less) and irritability.

I've been wondering why I'm feeling so depressed these days, forgetting to wear makeup, my hair askew, my thermal underwear poking out from under my cashmere sweater. I go around cursing my car (that won't start), my salt-stained boots and my constantly damp and chilled feet. Even the outdoor hot tub I bought last year sits abandoned -- it's been too damn cold to walk out there and get into it.

But last week, while tooling around one of my favourite stores (Home Depot), I saw a wonderful sight -- palm trees, dozens of them -- in the aisle between bathroom fixtures and two-by-fours. At first I thought it was a mirage. But it was the real thing, and for under $40 each. I bought one on the spot, transporting it to my family room, where I've taken to drinking pina coladas by the gallon underneath it.

Assuming I'm not the only one suffering, I call Rod Phillips, CEO and president of Warren Shepell Consultants Corp. (he was chief of staff to Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman from 1997 to 2000). "Everyone's talking about the weather," says Phillips. "It's a Canadian thing. If you put three Canadians together, they'll talk about three things, and one of them will be the weather." Warren Shepell provides employee assistance -- from nutrition advice and child care to smoking cessation and mental-health problems -- and it receives a large number of calls related to stress. "Every day we get 1,000 calls from people across the country," says Phillips. "Twenty-five per cent of them deal with stress, anxiety and depression, and in January and February the numbers tend to go up. Seasonal affective disorder [SAD] has everything to do with shorter days, less light and colder temperatures." Phillips tells me that 5% of those who suffer from SAD will end up with clinical depression. "The rest of us will be affected negatively, but not to that point. I'm a fan of winter," says Phillips, "but it's so cold this year ..."

Although the company is worldwide, "we don't seem to be getting any calls from people complaining about warm weather," says Phillips. People often don't realize the cause of the anxiety they're feeling, he adds. "They don't know it's the weather. Part of dealing and coping with it is understanding what's causing it."

If you're wondering if you might have SAD, I'm told the signs include feeling tired but not being able to sleep, eating more, or eating less (in other words a break from the normal routine), and irritability. "Your palm tree is a good idea," says psychologist Gerry Smith, VP, organizational health, at Warren Shepell, "because you're redirecting your mind to something completely different, almost a means of escape. You think of the sun and the sand, and of warm winds caressing your body. And of course other things come to mind," he says.

As for the pina coladas, he asks if I add alcohol. I tell him that I do (with a vengeance). "Drinking alcohol is not a healthy way to deal with depression," he reminds me. "Alcohol is a depressant, so you shouldn't drink when you're depressed. As a matter of fact, self-medicating during difficult times is one of the worst things you can do."

So how should we handle it? "Give yourselves goals to look forward to," says Smith. "For example, plan for the next vacation, spend as much time as you can outdoors on the sunny days and enjoy the outdoors as much as you can. Encourage the body to soak up whatever sunshine there is." It's also important, he says, "to teach people how to relax and not get too uptight about life." Do yoga, relaxation and stretching techniques, massage and aromatherapy. "Spouses and partners can learn massage techniques," says Smith, "and introduce deep breathing into your cycle of work, do deep-breathing exercises, major stretching [tensing and relaxing]. That's the one that works for me," he says. "For example, if you wake up stressed in the middle of the night, go lie on the floor, and do full body exercises." And for quick relief, "make a tight fist and then release it." If symptoms recur every day over a four-week period, and you notice an alteration in your lifestyle then, says Smith, "you are probably clinically depressed and need professional help."

The effect of all this winter weather at work, Smith says, is "you'll find raised levels of irritability and lower levels of productivity." He says that employers should take the season into consideration. "Don't set expectations about being to work on time [during rough weather]. Be flexible and understanding."

The bad news, says Smith, is that the blues can last until April or May when the weather finally breaks. "It's the grey skies that wreak the biggest havoc on our emotions, worse than the snow or cold," he says. He points out, however, that those living in even darker climates, like the Arctic, where the sun barely shines in winter, show no problems. "Probably because they're used to it," says Smith. "But if you or I moved there, we'd have a problem. They socialize much better, and they fill their life with activities." So get out and be with people, Smith advises, like true northerners do.

I've taken Smith's advice and have switched to drinking virgin pina coladas, but I must admit the palm tree now looks kind of silly sprawled beside the fireplace, with gloves and boots hanging on it to dry. Funny, that didn't bother me when I was adding rum to my drinks.

  Last update: May 6, 2009
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