What Are "The Winter Blues"?

depression, winter blues, seasonal affective disorderMaybe you start to feel it as the days get shorter, or it really kicks in when it’s getting dark out at 4:00 in the afternoon. You might be dreading the dark, cold days of winter for more reasons than just having a lot of snow to shovel. You’re not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subtype of major depression that the National Institutes of Health estimates affects 6% of the US population, primarily those living in northern climates. Another 14% of the US adult population suffer from less severe form of seasonal mood changes, sometimes referred to as “winter blues”.
Since SAD is a form of major depression, it is important to be aware of the symptoms of depression in yourself or your loved ones. According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Symptoms specific to winter onset SAD or “winter blues” may also include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

It’s okay to have bad days, or to feel down on occasion. However, if you’re feeling bad or experiencing these symptoms for days at a time, or if they are affecting your ability to get out and do the things you enjoy, you should talk to your doctor. This is especially important if you are experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns, or thoughts of suicide.

What Causes SAD?

winter depression, SAD, winter bluesWhile the exact causes of SAD or Winter Blues are not know, it’s believed that changes in the amount of sunlight can throw off your internal clock (circadian rhythm) and leave not sleeping well, or feeling tired and depressed. Reduced sunlight levels may also decrease your body’s production of serotonin, a chemical that affects mood, and melatonin, which also has a role in mood and sleep patterns.
When the weather is freezing cold or you’re snowed in by a blizzard, you’re probably also not getting enough exercise, which can decrease your energy level and add to feelings of depression. Being reluctant to leave the house may also leave you feeling like a hermit!

What Can Help?

First of all, I’m a massage therapist, not a psychologist, so please, if you are feeling depressed or suicidal, contact a professional. You can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or on their website suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Next, try to get out of the house! Call a friend for lunch. Go to that party even though it seems like a lot of work to put on boots and a coat. Get out for a walk, or snowshoe, or ski. If cold weather exercise is not your thing, join a gym or go walk in the mall. Take yourself on a date to a museum or a movie.
Of course, massage therapy can help! It has been shown that massage has positive effects on the body’s chemistry. Cortisol levels, which can increase with stress, are decreased. Production of serotonin and dopamine increase, which can improve your mood and reduce feelings of depression. Massage also lowers your blood pressure and reduce chronic pain that may be affecting your sleep.
If you’re struggling with SAD or just feeling down, talk to your doctor, then consider giving regular massage a try. It’s important to take time for yourself and take care of yourself, despite (and because of) all of your responsibilities and stresses. Besides all of the chemical and physical benefits, massage just simply helps you “feel good” and can help you get through the worst of the winter blues.

Hand Pain? It May Not Be Arthritis

250px-extensor_digitorum_muscleDo you wake up with stiff, sore fingers? I have had several people mention fears of early arthritis (without confirmation by a doctor). You should of course see a doctor if you’re concerned about your health, however there is a possibility that it is not arthritis.

Here is a little something to try. Relax your forearm on your desk or a table and feel the muscles of your arm with your other hand. When relaxed, those muscles should feel relatively soft, and the skin should move around easily. If your forearm feels hard, and maybe the skin doesn’t even move very much, then your muscles are hypertonic, in a state of tension or abnormally high muscle tone.

You may not realize just how much your arm and fingers are interconnected. If you look at this diagram of the muscles of your forearm and hands, you can see that the flexing and extending of your fingers involves muscles that travel over your wrist, up your forearm, and even across your elbow.

To further illustrate how connected they are, here’s another demonstration. Place your forearm palm up on the table again and relax it, with your fingers somewhat straightened. Take your other hand and apply pressure to the muscles just below your wrist, and push towards your elbow, as you might see in a massage stroke. With a bit of pressure, this should make your fingers flex/curl towards your palm. Cool, huh?

This type of muscle tension most often affects people who use their hands and wrists a lot, and can be a precursor, or happen in conjunction with carpal tunnel syndrome. This means if you spend a lot of time at your computer, play an instrument, paint, hammer, knit, or do other work where you use your hands a lot, or in awkward positions, you may experience this problem. Of course you know I’m going to say it… “Massage can help!”
During your massage, I can tell you if those muscles are hypertonic, (have extra tension in them). We can do some different levels of moderate to deep tissue work to help loosen them up and get your forearm and hand moving better and feeling better. The best part? I can show you a few tricks to do at home to help keep them a bit more pliable going forward and make your mornings a little less stiff, and your days a little less painful!

That Knot in Your Stomach

Constipation. It happens to the best of us. No one likes to talk about it.
But wait, there’s hope! Don’t be embarrassed to talk to your massage therapist about it! When most people think of massage, they think of their aching back, tired feet, or stiff neck. They don’t often think about their neglected tummy. Stress, diet, or the side effects of many medications can lead to constipation and its related discomforts.
belly-2354_1920The thought of baring our stomach to a massage therapist might have its own share of discomfort. It’s the part of our body least protected by sturdy bones, or for many of us, strong muscles. We instinctively curl inward towards a fetal position when feeling stressed, in danger, or defensive, protecting our center.
However, if you’re having constipation, abdominal massage can do wonders to help you get things moving again. Gentle abdominal massage in a clockwise direction, following the direction of your intestinal tract, helps to relax abdominal muscles and stimulate the movement of digested food through your system. It’s also a lot more pleasant than harsh laxatives, particularly if you already take a lot of medications.
Along with aiding in digestion, abdominal massage may be of benefit to people with chronic lower back pain. When stomach muscles are tense and shortened, whether from stress or postural changes, this tends to have a stretching, stressing effect on the muscles in our lower back. By lengthening and relaxing abdominal muscles, we take the strain off the lower back.
buddha-242206_1920You don’t need to be self conscious about your belly. A professional massage therapist is not going to judge you or your body. They are thinking about the muscles underneath, how they are held, and what they can do to help them back into the proper tone and ease your discomfort. We see all kinds of bodies during the course of our practice, and we kind of think they’re all a miracle of chemistry, cells and maybe a little magic that makes you a beautiful human being.
So, at your next massage appointment, don’t be afraid to mention constipation or suggest to your therapist that you might like to add abdominal massage to your massage routine. You’ll be glad you did!
 

Let's Talk About Stress

stress, stress relief, massage for stressAs people’s lives become more and more hectic, stress becomes an increasing presence and increasing risk to our health. Numerous surveys and studies confirm that occupational pressures and fears are far and away the leading source of stress for American adults and that these have steadily increased over the past few decades. According to one study, 80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42% say their co-workers need such help.

How Does Stress Affect Us?

Stress symptoms may be affecting your health without you even realizing it. When the body is stressed, muscles tense up reflexively, the body’s way of guarding against injury or pain, part of the fight or flight response. During sudden stress, muscles tense, then relax as soon as the stress has passed. During chronic stress, the muscles are in a nearly constant state of guardedness. Over time, with chronic stress, the body can fail to return to pre-stress conditions and cause long term strain and health problems.
When tense for long periods of time, this can lead to other stress reactions or stress related disorders. For example, tension and migraine headaches can be associated with chronic muscle tension in the head, neck and shoulders. Some research theorizes that chronic muscle tension and the related buildup of lactic acid may be a contributing factor to fibromyalgia. Stress and anxiety can affect sleep patterns and increase the risk of health problems associated with not enough sleep, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

Chronic Stress

It’s not necessarily what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other body systems that becomes the problem. Stress triggers the nervous system’s fight or flight response. The body shifts all of its resources towards fending off the threat or fleeing it. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase heart rate, respiratory rate, decrease blood flow to the arms and legs, change digestion, increase blood sugar levels, and increase the heart rate, raising blood pressure. When our bodies don’t get the chance to recover from stress, we continue to wear down our systems with the continuous production and effects of these hormones.
Physically, chronic stress and anxiety have a tendency to cause us to hunch our shoulders or roll them forward in a protective posture, leading to continually tight/shortened muscles of the neck and shoulders. Frowning, clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth causes more muscles in your face, neck and jaw to become tight and painful. Muscles that do the opposite action of these muscles, antagonists, then tend to get overly stretched/lengthened and develop “knots”/adhesions, leading to more neck, back and shoulder pain.

Massage can help!

stress, stress relief, massage for stress, hot stone massageMassage can counter the effects of stress in a number of ways. The primary type of massage I provide is called Swedish Massage. This is a relaxing style of massage with long, flowing strokes that helps to relieve pain and muscle tension. It also increases the circulation of blood and lymph and aids in the removal of metabolic wastes from your body, including the byproducts of the nervous system’s stress response.
Physically, massage helps by lengthening and relaxing those tense, irritable muscles. Relieving tension in the muscles of the head, neck, shoulders and face can reduce the occurrence of headaches and migraines. Relaxing and lengthening those shortened muscles in turn relieves the overstretching and knotting of those antagonist muscles, reducing back, neck and shoulder pain. Decreased buildup of lactic acid may also contribute to a decrease in chronic pain and related disorders.
It increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine, which can help reduce anxiety and depression and improve overall mood. Decreased anxiety and stress, along with less pain, improves your sleep. In addition, one hour of massage has a similar effect on your body as three hours of restorative sleep, and stopping the the cycle of chronic stress stops the flood of stress hormones, lowering blood sugar and blood pressure, and improving circulation and digestion.

Other things help!

Reiki

Another service that makes a great addition or alternative to massage is Reiki. Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction, relaxation, and healing based on the idea that a life force energy flows through us. If this energy is low or blocked, then we are more likely to feel stressed or ill. When the energy flow is increased and the blockages removed, we feel more positive and healthy.
A Reiki treatment helps to identify and remove the blockages and improve our energy flow. A treatment is given fully clothed, most often while laying on a massage table. It can also be given while seated, or sent from a distance. Even if you do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of life force energy, the act of receiving a Reiki treatment can be very comforting and soothing – if for no other reason than you’re actually taking time to be still and receive positive intent and attention.

Aromatherapy

stress, stress relief, aromatherapy for stress, essential oilTo enhance the benefits of a massage or reiki session, aromatherapy may also be included. Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from the roots, leaves, seeds, or blossoms of plants. These oils have been used for centuries for therapeutic purposes, as well as for cosmetic, spiritual, and hygienic uses.
Researchers are not entirely certain how aromatherapy works, but some believe that when the smell receptors in the nose communicate with the amygdala and hippocampus, the molecules of the essential oils stimulate these parts of the brain and influence physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, scientists believe that lavender stimulates activity of brain cells in the amygdala similar to the way of some sedative medications.

Some essential oils that can help with stress and anxiety:

Lavender: Antidepressant, calming, rejuvenating,  good for stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, increased immunity
Rosemary: Good for headaches, mental fatigue, memory, antispasmodic. Rosemary is great for having in a diffuser while studying, to help you retain what you’re learning!
Clary Sage: Antidepressant, anti-anxiety, uplifting.
Sandalwood: Antidepressant, good for nervous tension, stress, anxiety, depression. Sandalwood trees have been over harvested and the oil is expensive, but you don’t need to use much more than a drop at a time to experience it.
Ylang-Ylang: Antidepressant, sedative, euphoric, calming, hypotensive (reduce blood pressure), (also believed to be an aphrodisiac, if you’re interested)
You can keep a bottle of your favorite oil or blend of oils on hand to just take a sniff whenever you need a pick me up. You can put a few drops into an aromatherapy diffuser, or wear it in a specially designed necklace. They can be added to carrier oils such as grapeseed, almond, or olive oil or natural lotions to apply to the skin. When I use essential oils during a massage, I will either use them in a diffuser to lightly scent the room, or put them into your massage lotion, depending on the desired effect.
So, this is all to say, ideally we should do what we can to avoid stress in the first place, but chances are everyone here has experienced stress more than they should. I am here to help, whether you want a good old fashioned relaxation massage, a more therapeutic massage to work out particular problem areas, or you would like to try adding reiki or essential oils to your stress therapy.