February 2012 | A Better You | Beating the Blahs

Don’t let seasonal affective disorder get you down

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Do you realize how the seasons affect you? Weather affects mood. Dance teachers aren’t immune, especially since many studios, looking for a steady income stream, offer summer and holiday camps that keep their faculty teaching through all seasons.

Winter may seem to last forever. A number of people get a case of the blues that comes on gradually in autumn, lingers through the winter, and lightens when spring brings more sunlight. Though it’s more common in the fall and winter, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can strike at other times, depending upon your personal preferences. If you’re the cool-weather type, you may experience an endless summer, just barely tolerating the heat and blazing sun until fall comes around.

Which weather pattern matters to you most as a dance teacher, and how does it affect your teaching? Here are some tips to understanding which season affects you most and how to manage that impact.

There is no known test for SAD, yet we can be proactive. Just noticing how the ebb and flow of the seasons affect you can be worthwhile in understanding your moods. Dance teachers need to be “people people,” gregarious enough to show interest in our students. When we enjoy ourselves while teaching, others notice, and the result is infectious. We need to draw people to us to ensure the success of our classes. While class content and teaching competence matter, the reality is that people also return year after year because of our personalities.

SAD is considered a type of depression. The typical symptoms of a full-blown depression—such as taking too long to perform simple administrative tasks, increasing isolation, persistent irritability, and just plain apathy—are easy to spot. Nobody wants to be around Debbie Downer. But SAD starts slowly and may progress to true depression before we realize it. Noting the effect of seasons can be critical in maintaining a teaching career.

Because I am a morning person I love the summer months, when it can be light enough to walk out to the beach at 5:30am. As much as I love the light of summer, here in the coastal Bay Area, summers can be foggy and cool. (The quote long attributed to Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” is apocryphal but nonetheless accurate.) How do I cope?

First off, there’s light therapy. Apparently the diminishment of outdoor light can be off-putting to our circadian rhythms. I replaced most of my overhead light bulbs with natural light spectrum bulbs. They usually last a whole year, longer than regular incandescents, and they don’t have the green cast and vibrating light of fluorescents. They’re easy on my eyes, don’t give me headaches, and help my mood.

Since dance teachers spend many hours indoors, it is cost effective to get the type of lighting that will work for you. If bulb replacement in your facility is not an option, try some at home or even consider light-box therapy. Sit in front of a light box for about 20 minutes a day. The additional light influences the circadian rhythm and lifts mood.

Do you prefer the dark and cold of winter to summer heat? I grew up in the South, and I love a warm and sunny day. However, I was amazed at how much easier it was to dance in the more moderate humidity and temperatures in the San Francisco area. Heat can be oppressive and lower frustration thresholds. It’s no wonder that more crimes are committed in hot weather. Ceiling fans and air conditioning can be indispensable.

As part of a program to promote well-being, I helped the ballet company I work with establish a protocol for limiting or canceling rehearsals on the occasional days when the studio temperature exceeds a certain limit. (Not many studios here have air conditioning because hot weather occurs so infrequently.) We eliminate all overhead light. Keeping cool drinks on hand and giving periodic mandatory movement breaks can help the dancers avoid heat stroke as well as the deadening sensation of inescapable misery that unrelenting heat can produce. The dancers were reluctant to stop rehearsing even when given the option to stop, so making a stringent policy of when to cancel class or rehearsal can be helpful.

There are more options for avoiding negative seasonal feelings. Decor is one place to start. One reason why the end-of-the-year holiday time can be fun is that it’s an excuse to dress up the workplace and be silly. It puts everyone at ease, creates excitement and interest, and is a great social elixir. Remember that decor can be what you are wearing as well as what’s hung on the walls or dangling from the doorways.

As goofy as it sounds, mixing things up with monthly or occasional themes—something as simple as having all the girls wear blue ribbons one day or decorating the lounge with colorful dried grasses or flowers—can lift the day for you and your students. Having a Plan B for an oppressively hot day, such as watching a dance DVD or sharing your own dance history, will surely delight your students.

Another strategy is to think opposites. Switch the season psychologically by showing clips from a cool-inspired dance classic like Anna Karenina in a summer month, or a vibrant piece like Paul Taylor’s Esplanade in a chilly month. Choose bright colors for yourself in winter and wear more subdued tones in the studio in very hot months.

Keep a tab on yourself. That’s one reason why journaling can be helpful; it identifies your own internal trends. Life’s inevitable disappointments and losses, in combination with seasonal mood shifts, may transform a subtle seasonal sadness into something larger. Women tend to be better at recognizing and voicing difficulties, so men should especially take heed of warning signs.

The signs of depression can include feelings of worthlessness and feeling overly guilty for things that went wrong or were out of your control. Studio owners and teachers will always grapple with artistic, management, and business issues as they strive to meet yearly goals and expectations. Keeping a log somewhere of these issues can help to maintain a larger perspective. Other signs include changes in sleep patterns such as sleeping too much, having trouble falling asleep, or awakening too early. Of course, the ultimate red flag is thoughts of death or actual contemplations of suicide.

The good news is that most people can be treated for depression. Dancers may worry that they will be rejected, criticized, or ridiculed if they admit to feeling depressed. That’s why seeking out a third party can be useful. Options include finding a competent counselor through a health care provider or religious organization. Anonymity can then be guaranteed.

Be proactive throughout the year in safeguarding your emotional health. Dance is about joy, which is the basis of our emotional health.

I have faith in you.