Psychology and Behavior

Are you Prepared for Winter?


As I write this, it is late August, mildly overcast, and there are the very earliest signs of fall – changing and falling leaves, even though it is still 82 degrees outside.  For the past few years these seasonal signs also bring faint feelings of foreboding.  I’m not ready yet to give up summer with all it’s outdoor activity and sunshine.  I’ve come to understand that I have a mild to moderate form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, more commonly known as the winter blues, and through the years each Fall, I have developed a dread of the dark winter and my associated depressed mood. But I’m hopeful that this year will be different, because I’ve learned how to fight back against it.  You can too.

I really noticed the symptoms of SAD since moving to the Midwest in 1995 from my native Southern California. In retrospect I believe I had the disorder in my teen years, as well. I grew up in a coastal town that suffered overcast, foggy weather for several months of the year.  I now know that I have need for bright light to maintain a sense of well-being and when my environment becomes dark – due to fog, short days, rainy weather, and overcast skies – I get blue.  Well, let’s be direct; I get depressed.

In the winter I become lethargic, foggy headed, and suffer from low motivation. My mood becomes more pessimistic and irritable.  I put on weight – attempting to use food to increase my energy.  I don’t have much motivation, and my productivity plummets.  Then the secondary self-berating kicks in about what I should be doing and about what I’m not accomplishing.  These symptoms and behaviors build as the winter progresses and are particularly bad when we have a 4 or 5 day stretch of cloudy skies.  Last year we had a lot of overcast winter days and by late January I felt like I hit the wall. 

But this changed when I finally took my suspicions of SAD seriously.  I’d known of SAD for years because I’m a clinical psychologist. I knew of the symptoms and something of the treatments but I always tried to white-knuckle it through the winter. Finally, I decided to get serious. I read The Winter Blues by Norman Rosenthal and started putting into practice his recommended light therapy. I was skeptical at first thinking that it must be a placebo, but quickly became a believer.  SAD is not so much psychological (though it has psychological affects) but biological.  It is very well researched and documented.  About 10% of people living in the Northern portions of the U.S. suffer from SAD and the further from the equator you live the higher the percentages are.  SAD is highly corelated (and most people think caused) by low levels of light in the winter. It is believed that low light levels signal those of us with SAD that it’s time to hibernate. The lack of light hitting our retina causes hormonal changes including increasing the production of melatonin – the sleep hormone.  Our brains and bodies begin to slow down, metabolism drops off, and we want to sleep.  We cannot keep up with the demands of modern Western civilization that propel us through life without regard for the season of the year or time of day.  In my own experience I noticed that when overcast weather would continue for four or five days I’d begin to feel down and blah. I also began to realize that sunny days coincided with an improved mood and higher energy.  It didn’t matter what the temperatures were or if there was snow on the ground – light levels were definitely having a serious impact on my mood. 

Treatment for SAD involves light exposure or light therapy. This involves using a very bright light at 10,000 LUX.  Within a very short time, both my wife and myself noticed a considerable change in my mood. Where I live, the skies are overcast or cloudy on average 2/3 of the year, and supplementing with light therapy is a necessary tool.  I use THIS LIGHT, purchased on Amazon.  It worked so well I bought a second one for the office, for afternoon boosters.  I get up early, make coffee, and sit next to the light (arms length away) for 45 minutes. I found that shorter treatments would still leave me a bit drowsy, and longer treatments didn’t really produce any more benefit.  During my time of light therapy, I read, prepare for my day, pray (eyes open), meditate, think, and do devotions.  I have received such benefit out of the additional meditation time, that I’ve added it to my morning routine year-round, even during sunny weather when I don’t need the light box. During the midwinter months when the daylight is short, I try to do a second round of light therapy in the afternoon.

This small disciplined change has made a huge impact on fighting SAD for me.  I’m prepared for the winter now.  I’ve already started light therapy again as the days get shorter, especially on dark overcast days.  And I’m planning on reading Dr. Rosenthal’s book again as a refresher.  If you think you may suffer from SAD – seek help. At the very least, read and learn about the condition.  You don’t have to continue to struggle with the Winter Blues. You can fight back.

We Repeat What We Practice

It is a true psychological principle that we repeat the things we practice.  A helpful question when you are stuck or experiencing something negative in life is to ask your self “What am I practicing?”  The difficulty in answering the question is that most of the mental or cognitive things we practice we have long since ceased being conscious of.  People practice all sorts of things that are not beneficial: irritation, anger, depression, sadness, indignation, pessimism, over-eating, not-standing up for yourself.  The list is long. 

Most of these behaviors we acquire at a time when they may make sense, but then we keep mentally practicing them long after they have stopped accomplishing anything worthwhile (this is the principle of adaptive behavior:  what is adaptive and beneficial in one context may be maladaptive in another or when the original context has ceased to exist).

I am a French Horn player, and I remember the beginning stages of learning.  I remember memorizing fingering charts and having to consciously make my fingers press the right valves in order to get the right notes. I remember making my self associate fingerings with written notes on a page.  When you play this way, you cannot play fast or musically, you can only play by rote.  As you improve, you no longer need to think of the finger combinations for particular notes, you simply see the note, and your fingers press the right keys, and you don’t think about it.  But even though you don’t think about it, every time you play you are still practicing those key combinations, increasing the likelihood that you will press them again.

Of course, if you practice the wrong combinations you will repeat those too, and it will be difficult to correct.  Some notes on the French Horn have multiple fingerings; the alternatives are easier to produce with your lips but are not as in tune. If you “cheat” with these alternatives you’ll have an easier time when you’re starting to play, but you won’t progress well and will have to un-learn the fingerings in the future in order to improve your musicianship.

Most people who play the French Horn learn on what is called a single horn.  A single horn has three valves that when used in combinations supply every note on the scale.  As you advance you acquire a double horn, which has four valves.  The fourth valve, operated by your thumb shifts the entire instrument to a different key/register (from the Key of F to the Key of Bb if you’re curious).  In order to realize the advantages of playing a double horn, you have to learn new key combinations.  The old ones still work, and there are times you will need them, but if you want to improve tone, flexibility, control, speed, volume etc., you have to learn how and when to use that thumb key. And you have to retrain your lips and lungs to work correctly with the new combinations.  It takes time.  It’s not as simple as having one more key to press; you have to unlearn a certain amount of what has now become automatic.

These days when I play my horn, and sit next to a novice and am asked “what’s the fingering for a C#” I have to stop and think about it, because I don’t think about it while I’m playing; I’m thinking about the music. The fingering has been practiced for so long that it’s now just a part of me.  I am still practicing those fingerings but I am practicing them without conscious thought.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, here’s the point:  You have all kinds of behaviors that you mentally practice without awareness.  Because you have practiced them you will do those behaviors without conscious thought.  The behaviors are so automatic that it feels like you have no choice or that it’s beyond your ability to influence or that you were just “born that way.”  But in truth, you are initiating those repetitive behaviors without awareness. The most common problematic behaviors have to do with anger or irritation, or being quick to take offense.  Here’s the sequence:  Someone does something, it triggers your emotional association, you respond with irritation.  Now you have just practiced the cycle, increasing the likelihood you’ll repeat it the next time somebody does the same thing.  Once the behavior is practiced and becomes automatic, you believe that the other guy has made you angry or irritable, or outraged or whatever. But really you have been practicing this behavior so much that you just do it, and the more you just do it, the more you are practicing it; increasing the likelihood that you will repeat the behavior.    When I see a C# on the page of music, my fingers press the thumb valve and the second and third valves automatically, and my lips squeeze to just the right tension and my lungs blow just the right pressure and I get a C# note out of my horn.  But I can tell you, I never believe that printed note on the page caused the whole thing.

We have rehearsed most of our emotional responses in our heads but we may not be aware of it.  If you find yourself dwelling on angry thoughts, or carrying on imaginary conversations you are practicing your reactions. You may not say out loud the things you say in your head, but you will certainly feel the negative feelings that go along with the words, and because you are practicing those feelings you will most likely have them over and over again.  We practice feelings just like every other behavior, we just don’t admit it to ourselves.  We kind of like the idea that we aren't responsible for our feelings.

But you can turn this same practicing phenomena to your advantage.  You can mentally practice positive outcomes, thoughts, hopes, and interactions.  The Apostle Paul says it this way,

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:15)

And he continues:

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”   (Galatians 5:19-23)

You can be intentional about practicing healthy behaviors, emotions and reactions.  The more you practice them the more likely you will be to repeat them, and the more in-control of yourself you will feel in social situations.  When you are less likely to repeat strong and automatic emotional reactions it will be much harder for others to manipulate you because you have not rehearsed the response or behavior they are trying to elicit.  So ask yourself what results are you getting in your life and what are you practicing that is producing those results.  And do you like the results you’re getting?