By Susan Kessler
Christmas lights have gone off all around Moscow and only the yellowed pine trees piled by city dumpsters remind us of the holiday glitter, retired to storage rooms until next year. Impressive numbers, staring back from the credit card statement, are all that remain of the mad Christmas gifts rush, which kept everyone busy during the last weeks of 2005. The sought-after trips, family dinners, spirited dancing and bright fireworks have all died down, as the January break has come to an end. A forgotten bottle of New Year’s Eve champagne in the fridge has gone flat.
With nearly a year to go until the winter festivities begin anew, February can bring the blues along with its piles of snow and the slippery patches of black ice. “All of us, from the time we were kids, have gotten used to the idea that wishes come true on New Year’s Eve [or Christmas]. There is no reason for that expectation to disappear with age,” says Oleg Levin, a psychologist with a private practice on Moscow’s Novy Arbat street. Before major holidays, like New Year’s Eve, Levin sees an influx of patients looking for quick solutions. They want to reshape their lives just in time for the new year.
“I will wake up on January 1st and life will be different,” is a common belief, says Olga Sopot, a psychotherapist with Moscow’s Psychological Solutions Center. It is irrational to expect drastic changes without doing anything to make them happen; but many still do-especially during the holidays. By February, it often becomes clear that Christmas or not, miracles are few and far between. Dashed holiday dreams, coupled with few hours of sunlight per day can produce a spell of winter blues.
Individuals, who place excessive emphasis on the gifts, the decorations, and all the other so-called “wrapping” – the outward elements of the holidays – may hit a kind of low when the celebrations are over. “They look forward to Christmas or New Year’s Eve as the time to escape real life, their daily problems,” Sopot says. When the tinsel is put away, their usual worries and fears come flooding back.
To beat the blues, Sopot recommends taking stock of all of last year’s positive events and setting goals for the year that’s just begun. Anxiety about the future, unwittingly caused by a lack of a clear plan, can precipitate feelings of sadness. Writing down all the accomplishments of 2005 on a piece of paper, alongside goals for 2006, can help jumpstart the year on a positive note, Sopot says.
Going away for the weekend, preferably to a sunny destination, to take a look at your life from “outside” the usual routine, is also a good recipe for cheering up. “Outward changes can precipitate inward changes,” Sopot says.
The gray winter months can dampen the spirit, especially for those who are accustomed to living in warmer countries with plenty of sunlight. As the seasons change, the difference in sunlight patters can cause a shift in our “biological internal clocks” or the circadian rhythm, according to America’s National Mental Health Association (NMHA).
November through March can be difficult months for people, suffering from inadequate sunlight in Moscow. Flying south for short stints throughout the winter is a biological necessity, rather than a luxury for people who feel depressed during the coldest months of the year.
Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, is thought to cause symptoms of depression and is produced at increased levels in the dark. When the days are shorter and darker, melatonin production increases, according to NMHA.
During the shortest winter days, thousands of people worldwide experience fatigue, a desire to oversleep, depression, a strong craving for sweets and other symptoms, which they don’t normally have during the spring and summer months. This may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is caused by seasonal variations of light, according to Britain’s SAD Association.
Bright light therapy is used to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin for people diagnosed with SAD, which affects women more often than men. Walks and exercise in natural sunlight is even more effective than spending time under artificial fluorescent lights, NMHA finds.
Psychologists recommend consulting a therapist if you continue feeling sad and “out-of-sorts”, as the Russian winter rages outside. However, there is good news for those set on beating the post-holiday blues on their own: even though many winter depression sufferers are not diagnosed, their symptoms disappear in the spring.