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Winter’s Happy Secret – Avoiding Seasonal Depression

I sometimes wonder whether people in other cultures suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, in the way that many people in the west seem to do. SAD is a mood disorder in which people get depressed at a certain time every year, usually in the winter months. Perhaps the prevalence of SAD, and the fact that many other people I know talk about feeling a bit glum in the winter, points to something not quite right in our relationship with nature’s seasonal cycle. Of course some might say that it is just a matter of people getting depressed because of the lack of sunlight, but that simply begs the question of why depression should inevitably follow from such a lack; and also the research does not back up such a simplistic view. For instance, one study found that SAD was twice as common in a sample of Americans as it was in a group of Icelanders living at much higher latitudes¹.


It is axiomatic in Traditional Chinese Medicine that our lives should be lived in accord with, even in harmony with, the changing seasons. This cyclic changing is spoken of in classical Chinese thought as the movement from Yin to Yang and back again. Winter is the time of Yin, and summer is the time of Yang. Yin relates to coolness, darkness, interiority, but also to nourishment, stillness, receptivity. This is what the ‘Huang Di Nei Jing’ (the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), one of the foundation texts of Chinese medicine, written some two thousand years ago, has to say about winter:


“During the winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home and enter a resting period, just as lakes and rivers freeze and snow falls. This is a time when Yin dominates Yang. Therefore one should refrain from overusing the Yang energy. Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in winter. Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret .Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the skin covered. Avoid sweating. The theory of the winter season is one of conservation and storage.”


It may be that our culture does not do Yin very well – we have an overemphasis on Yang, on going out, doing things, making noise, being active and so on. All very well in the summer, but in winter time a different emphasis is needful. We need to turn inwards a little, nourish and nurture ourselves, reflect, meditate, ponder. Sit in front of the fire and tell stories. Listen to the wind and rain hammering on the windowpane.


Maybe we don’t realise this. We think we should still be out there playing in the sun, so we get deeply out of touch with the way the year turns around and so end up depressed. Or maybe even sometimes depression is our misinterpretation of our natural turning inwards towards the Yin. We can’t recognise that deeper sense of self, we can’t relate it to how we think we should be (or how we are told we should be – think adverts, for instance, which usually have a vested interest in our looking outwards for satisfaction). So, we start to think that there is something wrong with us, when in fact there is only something wrong with how our culture tells us we should be.


More generally, some people choose to have a regular acupuncture treatment at the time of transition from one season the next. Such treatment can help us to make the subtle adjustments necessary to remain in harmony with the natural world which we are inextricably part of, and this in turn not only makes us feel better but strengthens our body’s ability to wards off illness. Having such a treatment as autumn gives way to winter helps set us up to make the most of winter, avoiding SAD and, like nature herself, building up our resources so as to be ready for the return of the Yang which comes with the new growth and vitality of the spring.


1. Magnusson A, and Stefansson JG. 1993. Prevalence of seasonal affective disorder in Iceland. Archives of General Psychiatry 50: 941-946.


Written by Vimalaprabha

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