Seasonal Affective Disorder and Acupuncture

Happy solstice!

Today is winter solstice, the day with the smallest number of daylight hours in the year. After today, the days gradually will start getting longer, giving us an extra minute or two each day of sunlight until we reach the longest day at summer solstice in June. Our part of the planet is turned its furthest away from the sun, and this is when the coldest temperatures begin. I thought about that as I (grumbling) scraped ice off my car this morning for the first time this season, and the temperature gauge read 32 degrees. This is the body’s hunker down season.

Here in Portland, we don’t get many sunny days over the winter months, and a lot of folks experience some level of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a type of depression that’s typically tied to the seasons with shorter days. SAD can make you sleep a lot, feel like you have no energy, moody, crave carbohydrates, gain weight, and generally experience all the symptoms of depression. In fact, in the latest DSM, they stopped classifying SAD as its own disorder altogether, and instead they now add a qualifier of “with seasonal pattern” to diagnoses of depression or bipolar disorder. Along with the depression, many people also experience anxiety symptoms. Any way you slice it, it sucks.

Light therapy using a light box can help. The idea is that you sit near a high-intensity light for 20-30 minutes each morning and it helps regulate your circadian rhythm. small light boxI started using a light box last year, and it has really helped. I have a small one that uses LEDs and doesn’t take up much room, so that I can take it with me if I travel or am late getting out of the house. This is the one I have: Sphere Gadget Technologies Lightphoria, 10,000 Lux Energy Light Lamp.

Acupuncture can also help. Some people come in when they’re feeling overwhelmed by the heaviness, to get some relief. Getting that instant rush of relaxation is nothing to sneeze at — if you’re feeling overwhelmed, come on in! For me, like a lot of people, it’s harder to motivate myself to do things for self-care if I’m already in a pit of overwhelm, so I tend to favor prevention if it’s possible. I’ve found that getting acupuncture once a week during the dark season smooths out and dials down the depression and anxiety symptoms and makes it a lot more manageable.

If you suffer from seasonal depression, you’re not alone, and there are many things that can help. Come in for an acunap, try a light box, talk to a therapist or a friend, get some exercise, snuggle your cats and dogs, see a doctor about possible medication… there are a lot of options, and whichever options work for you are the right ones.

Stuffed Animals for Mental Health

four stuffed animals: a tan rabbit, a brown and white dog, a gray tabby kitten, and a golden lab puppy

People use acupuncture for stress, depression, and anxiety all the time. These conditions are widespread in our culture, and heading to an acupuncture clinic can help in a few different ways. The needles are obviously the biggest factor — acupuncture has been shown to be effective with these conditions in many studies. For the people who tend to fall asleep during treatment, the nap has its own therapeutic value. Putting your phone away for an hour and disconnecting from your stressors, letting your body rest in a relaxed position, and being in a space with soothing sounds/colors/textures also contribute to the experience. At Feel Better, we’ve added another option to help chill you out: stuffed animals!

It might seem silly to think about adults snuggling stuffed animals while receiving acupuncture, but if you give it a try, you might find that your treatment is even more relaxing. Most people are aware that interacting with live animals can have a therapeutic effects, such as when they’re used in hospice, with veterans, or as emotional support animals. But studies also show that touching or petting a stuffed animal also can lower stress, depression, and anxiety. Live animals have a larger effect, but hey — when you’re dealing with chronic depression and anxiety, every little bit helps. One study even said stuffed animals can help reduce existential angst!

Stuffed animal dog in the lap of a person receiving acupunctureIs it the reassuring small weight on your lap or under your arm? The feeling of the ultrasoft (fake) fur under your fingers? The brain making an association to  real pets you’ve loved and/or stuffed animals you snuggled with in childhood? Maybe all of the above? Whatever the reason, it really does seem to make a difference.

So! We have a selection of stuffed animals in the clinic — affectionately known as the Feel Better Snugglebuggles — that you can choose from if you’d like to give it a try.

From patients who’ve tried it:

“Wow, that was so relaxing!”

“I thought it sounded silly, and I thought I looked silly, but it was actually really comforting. I’d totally take a nap with that kitten again.”

“This makes me want to get a stuffed animal to hold while I’m at home watching tv or working on my laptop, it really did make me feel relaxed.”

So given them a try the next time you come in for a treatment! We have a couple of puppies, some kittens, and a rabbit to choose from. And you can hide them under a blanket if you’re still worried about looking silly. 🙂