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What the Cat Says

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By Paula Hurtt and Jene Hedden

     It has been a tough winter thus-far, and it looks like there's more to come. 

     And athough it's doubtful the C.D.C. keeps tabs on such things, it's a pretty good bet that Cabin Fever is occurring in epidemic proportions.
     Winter time can be depressing...sometimes literally depressing.
     For some people, Cabin Fever can be overwhelming and become Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), a real mental health issue that can mimic some or all of the symptoms of Clinical Depression.  
     Website publisher and long-time family counselor Jene Hedden describes it like this:
     "The most common time of year for S.A.D. is during the winter, usually after the holiday season has passed. Seasonal Affective Disorder can be more intense in winters like we are experiencing this year. Extreme cold combined with snow and ice cause us to want to stay inside and not get out unless absolutely necessary. Sometimes it feels better to just stay in bed with an electric blanket and shades drawn.
Other times we seem drawn to foods that are high in sugar. We like the lift of the "sugar rush".  But we only feel that lift after eating foods that ruin our diet. The result is weight gain during the winter that makes our self image that much worse in the spring."
     The main cause of Cabin Fever and even S.A.D. is the reduction in sunlight in the winter.  Sunlight triggers several feel-good chemicals in our brain and hormones in our body that keep us feeling well and happy.  Even when it's cloudy out, the ambient daylight keeps us well.  But, when it's so cold outside that it's dangerous, we avoid the outdoors and stay inside, thus not getting the light we need.  In addition, we may be driving to work before daylight and driving home at dusk after having worked all day in a windowless office.
     But, we can fight Cabin Fever with some simple tips...a couple of which our cats seem to know instinctively.
What the Cat Knows 
     Watch your cat on a clear cold day.  Most likely you will find him sitting by a window looking out at the world or curled up in a patch of sunlight snoozing.  
     We all should do the same.  If it's too cold to get outside for a walk then sit by a window and look outside for at least fifteen minutes a couple of times a day.  Even if it's a cloudy day, sit in the daylight.  If you work in a windowless office, take a couple of breaks during the day and find a window where you can stand or sit for a few minutes absorbing the natural light.  The light will help keep your brain chemicals and hormones balanced warding off depression.  The natural light will also keep your biological clock running smoothly so that your sleep patterns remain in a normal range. 
     The other thing the cat knows is the value of a good cat nap. Of course, it seems cats sleep about 20 of every 24 hours!  We don't need that.  But, recent research suggests that a short nap helps keep our brains young and healthy.   
     If you can, lie down and doze for about fifteen minutes to a half hour but no more.  More than thirty minutes or so could leave you feeling sluggish and drowsy.  If you are at work and can't lie down, perhaps you can close your office door and relax in your chair or with your head on your desk like you did during nap time in first grade.  Empty your mind, pay attention to your breathing and relax your head, neck and shoulders.  For most of us, this can be as relaxing as a nap. 
     And what does your cat do after sun bathing or a cat nap?  He stretches!
So, after your dose of sunshine and/or your cat nap, luxuriate in a good long stretch.  Reach for the ceiling and come right up on your toes and yawn if you can.  This releases tension from the body.
     Here are some more tips for managing Cabin Fever including what Jene Hedden refers to the four R's...Rest, Routine, Relax and Recreate.

1.      Have a plan. Don’t let the gray days of winter take you by surprise. Plan to stay busy and engaged in life with recreational activities you enjoy. Plan a winter project for yourself or your family.

2.      Get plenty of rest. Part of the reason for winter blues is that our internal clocks become confused. Maintain your normal sleep routine. Have a regular bedtime and get up at a regular time. Your body thrives on routine.

3.      Relax and nap, but don’t sleep in on cold dark winter mornings. It’s tempting to sleep late on dark, cold winter mornings. Sleeping too long can leave you with a headache. Get up and get busy.

4.      Exercise. Sitting around and watching TV because it’s gray outside will bring on brain fog. If your health will allow, get out and walk every day. A before dinner walk is ideal. Be sure to wear reflective clothing or carry a flashlight if it is dusk. If you can’t exercise outside, join the Y or a fitness center or just dance around in your living room. The point is to keep moving.

5.      Stay engaged. Don’t try to hibernate. Get out with friends and family and enjoy some relaxing activities together. Entertain. Make sure your calendar is as full as you want it to be. 

6.      Practice good health habits. Eat healthy, fresh, whole foods. Drink lots of water. Stay away from excessive use of alcohol, caffeine and sugar.  

7.      Know the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. S.A.D. can mimic some or all of the symptoms of clinical depression. These symptoms can include fatigue, sleep disturbances, anxiety, weight loss, weight gain, sadness, irritability and an inability to enjoy activities which are normally fun. If you have two or more of these symptoms for more than a couple of weeks, you may be dealing with S.A.D. If you think you or a loved one has S.A.D., talk to your doctor who can refer you to a professional who can help you through it.