Japan, you have heard over and over, has four seasons. Though winter technically doesn’t begin until December 22nd (the solstice), both the weather and the department stores have moved into full winter mode. As you read this, you’re probably under your kotatsu eating something covered in Melty Kiss, with Heat Tec leggings and undershirts at the ready for your cold, windy, wet, dark tomorrow.
In addition to gangs of common colds, winter also brings with it another illness: Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly anchronymized SAD. SAD isn’t the same as chronic or depression, though it can compound it, and it can start at any time in someone’s life. Those of you coming from the Southern Hemisphere are especially prone to SAD this season because you get two winters back to back–winter in your home country before coming here, and now winter in Ishikawa.
Most doctors believe that SAD is a response to a lack of natural light, often compounded by a change in nutrients as people change from a diet filled with summer and fall veggies and fruits to one…less filled with veggies and fruits. Symptoms include lethargy, disinterest in daily activities, oversleeping, overeating, anxiety, mood changes.
The good news is that even in Ishikawa, where the sun barely peaks through the clouds in the morning and it’s pitch black when you leave your school/BOE sometime around 4:30, there are lots of things you can do to winterize your mental health.
1. Try for 30 minutes in natural light–sunlight if you can get it–every day. This is a clinically proven way of beating the winter blues, and you will feel a little better almost immediately. If you have your lunches free and the weather permits, spend half an hour outside. If you don’t have lunch free, chances are, your school or BoE allows for one or two smoke breaks. Ask if you can use them to spend some quality time with the sun.
2. Wake up with the sun. Wait, don’t skip this one! Sunrise is at about 6:55 am here–morning sunlight probably starts just a little earlier than you wake up. Set one alarm for sunrise and one for your normal wakeup time, and just open the curtains when you hear the first one. Starting the day with some natural light makes a big difference.
3. Eat for your brain. Yes, chocolate is awesome. So is beer. So are tempura and croquettes. However, your brain needs some other things to get through the winter. During winter months, it’s best to up your consumption of folic acids, amino acids, omega 3s, protein, and vitamins C and D. Spinach (ほうれんそう), fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, mikans, milk, eggs, and whole grains like brown rice (玄米, genmai) and quinoa (キヌア) are great ways to come by these ingredients naturally. Stashing the mikans on your kotatsu along with (or instead of) the other snacks will also prevent guilt.
4. Don’t isolate yourself. Meet up with your friends often, especially your friends within the community. It’s easy to complain with other ALTs, CIRs, or foreigners about your troubles here, but much harder (or at least much more impolite) to complain to that nice lady at the bakery who likes to practice English with you, or the family that sometimes invites you out to dinner. Stay connected. After all, people all over the world have been driving the cold of winter away with the company of family and friends for millenia.
In two weeks, it will stop getting darker and start getting lighter every day. Meanwhile, your friends, Area Leaders, Prefectural Advisors, and JET hotline staff are there to help.
Stay warm and happy!
Lauren is an ALT in Komatsu and has a little too much experience with the winter blues from her days in Oregon and Minnesota.