Wintertime Sadness

While most people assume that emotions start in your brain, and then spread into your body as physical feelings, cognitive science has long backed the opposite.  It’s called the attributive theory of emotion, and it posits that you first feel the bodily physical sensations, and then your brain notices, interprets, and labels those sensations as emotions.  In one famous study, subjects held pencils in their mouth in one of two different ways, which surreptitiously used the same muscles as either smiling or frowning. After just five minutes, the subjects rated themselves significantly happier or sadder, respectively, than just before they started with the pencil holds.

But many body feelings are fairly nebulous, and could match up with several different emotions.  So your brain also looks at context cues to try and figure out what you’re feeling, and why.  Fear, for example, is physiologically indistinguishable from excitement.  Which, in fact, is the basis for a great Cognitive Behavioral Therapy trick for dealing with anxiety or phobias: if you feel fear in your body (racing heart, sweaty palms, clenched stomach), but then consciously label that feeling as ‘excitement,’ the feeling matches the label well enough that your brain will play along.  So you’re not nervous about giving a speech – you’re excited to share your message.  You’re not afraid of flying – you’re extremely excited imagining how great the vacation is going to be when you land.  (Try it out – it works surprisingly well.)

Recently, I’ve been thinking about that in the context of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the wintertime blues that many people feel, especially in less sunny climes.  During the winter, people are often tired, slow, and low-energy; they want to stay indoors, huddled up in a blanket on the couch.  Because the physical feelings match, we call that feeling sad and depressed.  And so we treat the feeling, either with drugs, or with exposure to intense daylight-spectrum light and mega-dosing of vitamin D (the latter two of which are often as effective as the drugs, in case you want to Google those options up).

But over the past decades, we’ve increasingly realized that a lot of the ‘negative’ physical reactions your body produces actually serve positive purposes.  So if you get rid of those reactions, or substantially tamp them down, it often comes at a longer-term cost.  Consider inflammation – say, as a child’s fever, or in an athlete’s sore quads and hamstrings after a training run.  Sure, if a fever pitches dangerously high, meds to keep it down saves lives.  And if the athlete’s muscle soreness is bad enough to keep her up all night, the lost sleep may offset any upside from the training.  But, at slightly lower levels, that fever is actually helping the child’s body fight off the infection – something it would do less quickly and effectively if he’s given meds to drop his temperature back to normal.  And while a handful of Advil will make our runner feel better today, it will also interfere with the hormone signaling pathway needed to build muscle; in other words, those NSAIDs negate much of the point of going for the training run in the first place.

Human bodies fluctuate cyclically over a number of time periods, from our daily circadian rhythms, to our yearly circannual ones.  And many of the aspects of these cycles are still a mystery.  Though it takes up a third of our lifetimes, for example, we’re still not sure why people need to sleep, or what, exactly, it does for us.  Similarly, we know that there’s a swing over the course of the year – during the spring and summer, we have more energy, need less sleep, can more easily shed pounds of fat; whereas in the fall and winter, we bulk up, conserve energy, and want to curl up and sleep somewhere warm.  While a bunch of that likely stems from a basic evolutionary fact – it was harder to find sufficient calories in winter back in our hunter-gatherer days, so it made sense to hoard them during that time – I strongly suspect there are other physiological reasons for the swing.  Much as a field needs to lie fallow to recover between harvests, perhaps the winter slowdown allows for longer-term recovery in our bodies and brains, much as sleep allows at the daily level.

So, in short, I’m not sure ‘winter mode’ is something we want to cut out entirely, even if we have the tools to do so.  At the same, time I am also sure that calling that winter mode ‘sadness’ and ‘depression’ is a quick way to feel, well, sad and depressed.  So, take a page from the CBT book, and see if you can make that winter shift seem less terrible by smarter labeling.  I’m done with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and am instead referring to it – in my brain to myself, and in conversation with anyone else – as Happy Hibernation Mode.

Embrace the fact that being low-energy in the winter actually feels good – in other words, it’s nothing to be down about.  Happy hibernating!

November 26, 2017