Sleeping In Seattle: The Consequences Of SAD

depressionI recently mentioned my somewhat reluctant decision to relocate from Seattle when the right opportunity presents itself (A job and nice one bedroom in Berkeley, North Oakland or Boulder anyone? Anyone?).

While my move was precipitated by a layoff in February, I’ve known for a year that a relocation was necessary, regardless of my affection for my adopted city – despite my beautiful, relatively affordable apartment just two blocks from Lake Union and my peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood full of pretty houses brimming with gardens and backyard chickens. Even though I can walk everywhere, crime is virtually nonexistent and my landlord rocks.

The real reason I’m leaving Seattle is because I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and arthritis (due to a bizarre infectious disease acquired in Ecuador three years ago). SAD is thought to result from a shift in the body’s circadian rhythms, due to changes in sunlight patterns (think of how certain mammals hibernate in winter). Shorter, darker days also increase the amount of melatonin, a hormone linked to the regulation of sleep and waking, released by the pineal gland. Perhaps my being a Southern California native is to blame (although I’m officially a resident of Colorado…it’s complicated, I know).
seasonal affective disorderIt took me a long time to commit to a move to the Pacific Northwest, despite my love of the region, because I was concerned about the climate. But, like many before me, I was seduced by a record-breaking Seattle summer three years ago when the temperature soared into the upper 80s and the sky remained a clear, vivid blue. The job prospects appeared promising and an incredible sublet fell into my lap. I was in Seattle for the weekend for work and a month later, I was living there. It was like I’d hijacked myself.

My friend Chris has lived in Seattle since 1994. We were hanging out during my visit when I announced I was going to move. “It’s not usually like this,” he cautioned. I was busy gaping at Mt. Rainier in the distance.

He didn’t lie. I’ve been waiting for the weather to be like that ever since. I was filled with anticipatory dread before my first winter, which is why I’d initially only committed to a sublet. It turned out to be the mildest winter Seattle had seen in years, causing me to mock the locals I’d met. “Just wait,” they told me ominously (for a different viewpoint, check out my Gadling colleague Pam Mandel’s ode to Seattle winters, here).

The last two winters – which have been harsh, even by Seattle standards – have kicked my ass. It’s not the “snow” we’ve gotten; I love snow. But Colorado averages 300 days of sunshine a year, and it has a tolerable, dry cold. Seattle cold seeps into the bones, and summer is a negligible term for most of that season. I actually didn’t realize I had post-infectious arthritis until two years ago, when the Fourth of July dawned wet and dismal, and my joints felt like they’d entered their golden years overnight.

Since then, I’ve experienced varying intensities of arthralgia in my hands and knees as well as low-level to serious fatigue. As a runner, this was problematic and my depression increased because I had turned from physically active, adventurous outdoor fanatic to couch potato. I often required daily naps, which wracked me with guilt.

Not until last summer, while visiting my former home of Boulder, Colorado, did I fully realize the impact Seattle was having on my physical and mental health. On my first morning, to quote a SAD-suffering friend, I felt like “someone had turned the world’s lights back on.” I marveled at the sunshine and warm air. I shocked myself by effortlessly doing a three-mile run – the first half uphill. Every day, I stayed outside until sunset. My arthritis had vanished. I felt like me, again: the spaz who can’t stand to be indoors when the sun is shining. I was productive and active and a much, much happier person. I had the same experience while in northern Chile in August.

I returned to Seattle and wham! I morphed into the worst of the seven dwarfs again: sleepy, grumpy and lazy. Work circumstances forced me to postpone a move, and it seemed like every day it was either pissing rain or the sky was low and leaden. I had difficulty concentrating on work, and was irritable and overemotional. Desperate, I sought the care of an excellent psychiatrist, who combined talk therapy with antidepressants.sun

While getting laid off sucked, it was also a strange relief. The one thing tying me to Seattle was gone. The thought of leaving is disappointing, but life is too short to live embedded in the couch. The economy is picking up in the Bay Area and I’ve had some very promising job leads.

It’s hard to admit that the color of the sky exerts such influence over your mood. However, I’m not alone; according to Mental Health America, three out of four SAD sufferers are women.

My advice: the sooner you admit it, the sooner you can get on with living. Whether you require phototherapy, antidepressants, extra Vitamin D, counseling, acupuncture, warm-weather vacations, or relocation, the bottom line is that SAD is very real and can have a devastating impact upon your quality of life as well as your personal and professional relationships and career. And, like a romance that’s not quite right, it’s not worth sticking it out. Me? I’ve decided that Seattle is ideal for the occasional weekend fling.

Signs you may be suffering from SAD (these symptoms are most likely to occur in winter, but some forms of SAD do occur during the summer)

  • Inability to concentrate or increase in irritability
  • Feelings of sadness, unhappiness, or restlessness
  • Fatigue and/or lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Increase in appetite/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increase in sleep and daytime sleepiness
  • Loss of interest in work and activities you once enjoyed

Where to get help:

Talk to your health care provider, who can refer you to a specialist. For additional information and support, check out the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) website.

[Photo credits:girl, Flickr user Meredith_Farmer; clouds, Flickr user CoreBurn;sun, Flickr user Warm ‘n Fuzzy]

Home Moving Tips

10 tips for traveling with depression

traveling with depressionIf getting up in the morning sometimes seems like you’re taking on the world, then actually taking on the world might sound preposterous. But with a little planning and some extra precautions, traveling without fear of a mental collapse is a definite possibility.

Like a lot of people, I’m discovering, I have a streak of sadness that often runs just below my surface, occasionally exposing itself as painfully as a raw nerve. But with coping strategies, good friends and a little help from medication, I’m able to adventure to the other side of the planet, by myself.

Because I have to keep my mental balance in mind a lot of the time, I’ve adopted traveling strategies to help me with my depression. I’m not a doctor, and don’t play one on TV, so my advice shouldn’t be taken over the opinions of your doctor. But I do have over a decade of traveling experience, and almost all of it came with some form of depression. Here’s what I’ve learned on the road:

1. Mind the jet lag. Upsetting your sleep pattern is rough on your emotional balance. It took three different mental collapses days after flying overseas that I realized I had a pattern going: jet lag = depression. Oddly, once I figured that out, it stopped happening — likely because I now prepare for it by listening to my body. I do my best to eat healthy while in transit, splurge for a comfy room at my destination so that I can relax, and give myself several days before any hard travel. Avoiding (lots of) alcohol on those long-haul flights also helps.
2. Try to create a regular routine. Sleep is a big issue for me, and even friends who know me well often don’t get it when I tell them I absolutely must be in bed by 10 to be asleep by 11 in order to function at 8am. “Can’t you stay up a little bit later just once?” they’ll ask. Well, no. I know it makes me a fuddy duddy, but I’d rather be boring than crying. For this reason, I’ve slowed my travel pace down significantly from my 20s, because too many all-night bus or train rides tends to wear down my defenses.

Ditto for exercise. If I can just get a 30-minute jog in almost every day, I feel a lot more grounded. Failing that, I walk wherever and whenever I can. It’s not easy when I’m on the go, just like with sleeping, though it’s easier to fit in a half an hour of exercise than nine hours of sleep.

3. Be sure you have enough medicine to last your entire trip. Many anti-depressants aren’t available abroad, and the last thing you want to do is try to go off your medication cold-turkey and in a foreign country. My health insurance has given me up to six months in advance before; be sure to ask if they have a vacation extender for prescriptions. My bottle of pills has the same importance as my passport and ATM card – when traveling, those three are often packed together. Besides being super careful about not losing your medication, also leave your prescription with someone who can call it in and FedEx it to wherever you’re at should you lose your bottle.

traveling with depression4. Keep in touch with your doctor. With Skype, this is easier than ever! But phone consultations work, too.

5. Don’t let other people make you feel bad. You feel bad enough, right? Yes, you know (without someone reminding you) that “you’re so lucky to be in [insert beautiful destination here]!” Many folks don’t get that you can’t just “snap out of it,” and even if you could show them your depleted serotonin stores, they probably still wouldn’t get it. And yeah, I know that that beggar with no legs has it way worse than me… which only makes me feel even more terrible about myself. Be careful with whom you share your sadness.

6. Have a support network back home. This is easier than it was ten years ago, because now we have Skype and Facebook. I’m lucky to have a group of friends and family who know me well enough to understand that I get blue from time to time. Usually all I have to do is send out an email telling friends that I’m feeling a little lonely, and soon I’m able to chat or Skype with someone who can reassure me that no, I’m not a complete failure.

7. Be good to yourself, but get out of bed. When I feel like I’m wearing that lead apron they put on you for x-rays at the dentist, the last thing I want to do is pull myself out of bed. Especially if it means it’s going to feel like I’m moving underwater, daydreaming about being in the fetal position, and crying on the street to boot — by myself. But I’ve never regretted leaving bed, even if it’s just to stumble down to the beach to sleep some more.

And on the other hand, don’t berate yourself if you can’t handle the group tour that you booked or write that blog post you’ve been meaning to publish. Pushing yourself to do a little will go a long ways, but trying to slog through something that you simply don’t have the mental energy for is only going to make you feel worse. Be gentle to yourself, but do your best to put one foot in front of the other, even if it’s just for a few steps.

8. Know your limits. My limits involve alcohol and sleep (not too much of the former, as much as I need of the latter), but everyone is different. Learn to understand your body’s signals and listen to them if they’re telling you you’re doing or taking on too much.

9. Trust your intuition. I constantly listen to the “vibes” I pick up not only from people, but also from places. Maybe a hotel room’s feng shui is off, or perhaps the energy from an entire scene – a beach, a town, a guesthouse – might seem not right. Obviously I try not to be overly picky or bratty, but it is important that I feel “safe” in a place. If my guestroom is off, I’ll subconciously avoid spending time in it, and won’t sleep well. If I think that the energy of an entire place is off, I’ll wander around in a funk, unable to make connections with anyone. Your subconscious picks up on things that you’re not aware of; follow your intuition if it’s telling you something isn’t right for you.

10. Go when you’re ready. If you planned a round-the-world trip but collapse weeks before you’re set to leave, try to postpone until you’re stable again. If you’re barely functioning at home, the jolts and irregularities of travel likely aren’t going to do you any good.

Happy travels!

[Photo credit: shawncampbell, hipsxxhearts, Flickr]

Don’t become a hermit: eight tips for solo business travelers

Solo business travel can be downright depressing. Even if you hate team dinners (and your colleagues), don’t mind dining alone and prefer a bit of privacy, frequent individual business trips can turn you into a hermit. After a while, you socialize almost not at all, become intolerant of other people and seek out the types of conversation that can only be held in your own head. Along the way, you can become perpetually annoyed or even seriously depressed. The tendencies that characterize your personal life can invade your job performance, as well. Sucking at work can take a toll on your self-esteem, intensifying the problem. Before you know it, you’re beholden to this toxic dynamic — extracting yourself requires a triumph of the will, which is unlikely when you’re trapped by the pressure of a seemingly inescapable situation.

Prevention is really the only course of action at your disposal. Otherwise, you’re left waiting for someone else to notice the problem and pull you out of your rut. For lone road warriors, unfortunately, regular exposure to anyone is rare. Clients are most likely to realize the situation, but that’s more likely to result in a call to your boss than to you. Your extrication from the perils of solo business traveler life thus could come at the cost of a ding to your career. To avoid this, you’ll have to be, as the management gurus say, “proactive.”

Your sanity and livelihood are on the line. Fortunately, you’re inherently equipped to protect yourself, and the travel environment offers much that you can use. However, both your mind and the hotel offer plenty in the way of temptation, so try to stay on an even keel.

Here are six ways to ward off hermitdom for the solo business traveler:

1. Dinner should not be “do not disturb”
Avoid room service at all costs. Once you get a taste of the convenience, even if you have a good reason that first time, you’ll slip into the habit of eating in bed every night. It won’t take you long to have an excuse for every occasion. Go down to the restaurant. If you have access to a car, leave the property. Otherwise, you’ll start to think that meals should be consumed in hiding. Some restaurants offer a communal table for business travelers: take advantage of it.

2. Join the club
Most business travelers have some form of elite hotel status, allowing them to hang in the club-level lounge. Skip the hotel bar, and use the exclusive offering instead. Sure, the food (and sometimes the booze) is free, which is always a plus. More important is that you’ll be around people like you. Shared experiences lead to natural conversations. And, if you and the other guests in the club are on long-term projects, you may wind up with some new friends. You may have a companion for dinner a night or two a week.

If your hotel doesn’t have a club level (or if you don’t have the status yet to get in), see if it has a manager’s reception. These are not at all uncommon (I stayed at a Homewood Suites in a Nashville suburb for that had one nightly). You can snack a bit, get some free liquor and meet the other road warriers who live the way you do.

3. Seek open spaces
You don’t have to work in your room. Instead of holing up in your cave, take your laptop down to the lobby — it has all those seats for a reason. Listen to the piano player while you peck away. Or, sit by the pool. Just being around people will help you remember that they exist.

For many professionals, confidentiality is a concern, but don’t let this become an excuse. Find a seat with your back to a wall, and you should be fine.

4. Take your client out
Yes, this is like volunteering for more work, but you’ll get something out of it. In addition to maintaining some human contact, you’ll strengthen your business relationship. Forego big team dinners in favor of one-on-ones where you can get to know each other. Just be careful not to get too chummy: it’s a business relationship first.

5. Check out the local color
If you’re on a long-term assignment, join a local gym instead of using the one at the hotel. Hit Craigslist to see if there are any groups around that share your interests. At first, you’ll be plagued by the nagging thought, “But, I’d have to drive (or walk or take the subway) to go.” Think about what home life is like for a normal person, though. You leave the house all the time. It shouldn’t be any different because you’re in a hotel.

Local networking groups can be a great outlet. You’ll meet people who want to be met, and you’ll further your career … all while keeping yourself from going nuts.

6. Find a friend of a friend
You may not know anyone where you’re going, but there’s a decent chance you know someone who does. Ask around. A friend of a friend can help you get oriented and give you an occasional buddy for dinners and drinks. It may be awkward at first, but that will go away. In the end, you’ll make a new friend, and you’ll get the hell out of your room for a while.

7. Meetups and tweetups
The internet can be useful. I’m always seeing traffic on Twitter for various get-togethers. Poke around. Also, cruise LinkedIn (if your mindset is professional) and Facebook (if it’s not). There’s always something going on in just about every city, and social media can make it pretty easy to find something that will turn you on.

8. Treat yourself to a spa experience
Chances are you need it anyway. Line up a massage one evening, and enjoy human contact of the most relaxing kind. Sit in a hot tub for a few minutes afterward. Then, go back to the drudgery of solo business travel at least somewhat refreshed.