Thursday, October 29, 2015

How to Outsmart the Winter Blues While Living with ALS

Winter is fast approaching, and for most folks living in the Northern Hemisphere, winter means lots of dark days, colder nights and being cooped up indoors with the heat set on high. Then, somewhere around February, along comes the “winter blues,” or “cabin fever” as some would call it. Of course, we all know the antidote; just go outside and take a short walk in the fresh air - -it does wonders for improving energy and attitude. It’s a smart thing to do and recommended by health experts everywhere.

But what if deciding to step outside is no longer an option?

Wheelchairs and walkers just don’t do well in snow. Caregivers aren’t always available and the weather isn’t known to cooperate, all of which makes winter even more stressful for many PALS (People with ALS).

In my previous post, Calm Your Stress, I described how our brains and immune systems “talk” to each other. How our feelings create a corresponding rise and fall of our immune cells; feeling calm encourages our immune system to function at its highest level, whereas stress sends a signal for it to shut down.

One major contributor to stress can be the very space where we live and work - - and researchers have identified exactly what contributes to a good case of stressed-out “cabin fever” - - noise, crowding, lack of light or too much light, stale odors, minimal social interaction and isolation.

Does this sound familiar? Did I just describe the room where you spend most of your winter months?
In her book, HealingSpace; The Science of Place and Well-Being, Esther Sternberg, MD, states “It doesn’t make sense to take a person who is sick and put them in a place that makes them sicker.”
Dr. Sternberg, a rheumatologist and medical researcher, is a leader in the study of the effect of environment on our health. Environments such as health care facilities and hospitals, offices and other work areas. All in the quest of designing spaces that reduces stress and anxiety, improve overall satisfaction and promote health and healing. So far, the experts have identified several key recommendations, or modifications that can easily be incorporated into any space.

Modifications that I believe can benefit anyone whose home has become their sole environment - - all winter long.
It all begins with a window

For instance, across all cultures, our brains all respond to a “preferred universal scene.” This can include sweeping vistas, views of nature, mountains, a horizon, the ocean, or forest…anything that is nature. Whenever we look at one of these views, the hippocampal cortex area in our brain releases a shot of endorphin, which is the “feel good” hormone. Gazing at scenes of nature enhances our feeling of calmness.

In 1984, a landmark study conducted in a Pennsylvania hospital, showed that patients whose hospital beds were near a window that overlooked a grove of trees healed more rapidly and left the hospital sooner than patients whose window faced a brick wall.

Dr. Sternberg recommends that your room have at least one window that gives you an unobstructed view of nature. If your view is nothing but grey skies and snow, then choose a picture with a "greener" nature scene and hang it on the wall. Have several on hand and rotate them every few weeks. Another recommendation is to surround yourself with photos of friends and family with their smiling faces looking directly towards you.  

Let there be light

If you are unable to be exposed to bright, natural sunlight for the bulk of the day, consider placing one or two full-spectrum lamps around you. Exposure to full-spectrum light is now a first line treatment to help reduce seasonal depression and the “blahs” of winter, and has been shown to be equal to or better than the use of prescription drugs.

Decreased sunlight during winter causes serotonin levels in our brain to drop which in turn leads to changes in mood. It also plays havoc with our internal time-clock; affecting the release of melatonin which without enough of it, we stay drowsy all day. 

Full-spectrum lamps and bulbs are readily available from local hardware and craft stores and come in many sizes and affordable price ranges.

Sound: dial it up, dial it down

Simple sounds of nature also produce feelings of calm and relaxation. Recordings of ambient sound, birds, water, wind chimes, gentle rain and more are available via DVDs, the Internet or even mobile “apps.” Test a few out to identify what background sound help you feel at ease.

Music has often been called the universal language of emotion because a number of regions of our brain become active when we listen to music. However, music is much more rooted in primitive brain structures - - connected with motivation, reward and primal emotions. For instance, our urge to “dance in our chair” when we hear a upbeat tune is caused by our neural oscillators synchronizing with the pulse of the music. We unconsciously anticipate when the next beat will occur. When the beat falls, our brains give us a small 'reward' hit for anticipating it correctly. More endorphins!

Think variety, and have a selection of upbeat, toe-tapping selections on hand - - country, old-time rock ‘n roll, whatever hits your "groove" - - just turn the volume up and have fun. Then when things need to wind down, change over to your slower tunes or ambient background sounds. 

The nose and brain connection

Our sense of smell is most associated with memory. For instance, the aroma of favorite foods can often bring us images of past events or certain people. But we can also use Aromatherapy; the use of concentrated extracts of roots, leaves, seeds and blossoms to proactively manage our moods. Air sprays, lotions, votive candles or diffusers are all common ways to use aromatherapy in the home.

Aromas from plants such as Lavender contain natural chemicals that induce relaxation and sleep. Others that relieve stress, anxiety and depression are sandalwood, lemon, rose, bergamot and orange. A super-quick method is to simply peel an orange and look for the misty spray that comes from breaking the peel. That is the orange’s essential oil surrounding you - - instant aromatherapy!

Mint or coffee aromas can be used to energize and help keep us awake. Just fill a small cup or bowl with whole coffee beans and keep it nearby. Hold it under your nose and inhale whenever you need to increase alertness.

Additional suggestions

Weather or distance shouldn’t be an excuse to miss out on social interaction. Use your computer's video camera to keep up with family and friends. If you're not already familiar with video calls - - give it a try - - the most common on is Skype. Actually seeing friends and loved ones on-screen is much more satisfying than a phone call.

Recently, I had the opportunity to join an online support group. The ALS Minnesota/North Dakota/South Dakota Chapter uses for their monthly meetings. Last January, I was their guest speaker; all the group’s members were in their own homes scattered across the chapter's three states, watching me on their computer screens while I presented from Arizona. I hope more ALS support groups adopt this innovative approach!

It's your turn

Take a look around you and draw up a list of changes your space needs in order to better prepare for the winter days ahead. Have a brain-storming session with your caregiver or family. Consider adding a few potted plants, bright colors on the walls or colorful designs on blankets and pillow covers.

You have control. Know that this year, you CAN outsmart the winter blues!

Dagmar Munn
ALS and Wellness Blogger 

"Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours."
Elton John

Email recipients: use this link to go the blog on the web. 


  1. This is information is extremely helpful and important. Sometimes the simple things in life make the most significant difference. Would love to see this posted on ALS for Women as well. There appears to be a higher level of anxiety and depression with women due to liver toxicity causing hormonal disruption.

    1. Thank you - - I'll find "ALS for Women" and post it.

  2. Thanks Dagmar for your blog and tweets

  3. Excellent Dagmar - coming from the cold north I know that this is the time they dread most - dark, damp and cold! I will pass your blog on. Thank you so much for being such an inspiration to so many people.

  4. As a fellow PALS living in hospice, I will be utilizing many of these suggestions, particularly music, coffee beans, and the nature pics. Thank you for your wonderful blog and God bless you for your book. My blog is not so positive but some people like my frankness. Visit some time.

    1. Tina - yes, these simple suggestions should bring positive changes to how you matter what season it is. I look forward to hearing from you again as to how you are doing. Your blog represents another voice that needs to be heard. Keep writing! I'll share it again: Thank you!


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