by Elaine Stone
February, the middle of winter: frost-bitten days, landscapes of white (snow days), or brown (non-snow days), late sunrises, early sunsets and abundant indoor time. Long gone are the vibrant colors of spring, summer, and fall and the festivities and life of the holidays. Many people, parents and children especially, contract an unusual disease about this time of year. It can be contagious and it can whoop the best intentions. It can start as a little itch and blossom into a full-blown outbreak in no time. It tends to increase appetites and decrease activity. Some people try to sleep it off and others simply exist in an "in-between state," never feeling fully awake. It leaves its victims bored and sometimes agitated; a definite change in mood can be detected. Parents find themselves wanting to escape, run off to warm sunny places and leave this looming fever behind. But parents, resist the temptation; there are some ways to treat this disease, known as Cabin Fever. Children and parents do not have to be held in its clutches. There are some common cures for this ailment the winter season spawns.
Cabin Fever is a feeling of being cooped up, restless and bored, resulting from long periods of confinement. In his article "Cures for Cabin Fever," Tim Jahn, a human development specialist states, "As the days get shorter and winter weather takes a turn for the worse, children spend more time indoors. Without fresh air and opportunities for vigorous outdoor play, kids can get what we call 'cabin fever.' Too many children spend long hours watching television or playing video games, neither of which help them release excess energy or use their time creatively." (http://www.parents-choice.org/article.cfm?art_id=285&the_page=consider_this, accessed Dec. 2009)
A more physiological explanation can contribute to this fever, as well. Dr. David Sheslow, a psychologist on kidshealth.org, says, "Melatonin is linked to sleep. The body produces this hormone in greater quantities when it's dark or when days are shorter. This increased production of melatonin can cause a person to feel sleepy and lethargic.
Serotonin is the reverse - serotonin production goes up when a person is exposed to sunlight, so it's likely that a person will have lower levels of serotonin during the winter when the days are shorter. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, whereas increasing the availability of serotonin helps to combat depression." (http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/sad.html#, accessed Dec. 2009) So, logically, there is a physiological association between Cabin Fever, decreased exposure to daylight and hormone levels which regulate sleep and mood. Even though Cabin Fever is not a psychological illness, there is certainly realistic environmental and physical changes occurring during the winter months that encourage its existence.
So just what are the common cures for this dreaded disease?
Number one, top of the list, is light. Everyone needs more sunlight. Wrap up the kids, bundle up the baby, slap a sweater on the dog and get everyone outside! Sunlight, even on a cloudy day, gives bodies the needed antidote. Serotonin production is stimulated and, presto, moods are elevated, energy is emitted and happier people result. Take a walk, play in the snow, engage in a winter activity; sled, skate, ski or even drag the bikes out and take a ride. Just 20 minutes will produce significant results. If going outside is not an option (or even if it is), open the curtains and let the sunlight in. Sit children by a window while doing homework or other activities. Help them absorb as much natural light as possible.
Number two: provide children with active play. Parent's Choice website recommends "allowing children to play actively indoors. Parents and children can dance or practice aerobics together. Parents may designate a space in the house where it is ok to wrestle and roughhouse. Furnish the space with old rugs and cushions and set limits on how rough kids can get." (http://www.parents-choice.org/article.cfm?art_id=285&the_page=consider_this, accessed Dec. 2009) Gayle Peterson, PhD, writing on parenting for iVillage, suggests, "Try changing your environment around indoors for the winter! Is it possible to take one room and make it a dedicated indoor playground? Clearing furniture to make room for a modest indoor climbing structure can provide for a much needed release of tension through physical activity. Engaging motor skills for a brief period of time, even 15 minutes, can allow for an easier flow into homework or other quieter indoor activities throughout the harsh winter months." Check into indoor classes offered locally, like swimming, marital arts, basketball, etc. Parks and Recreation departments and the YMCA are great starting places.
Number three: watch the family food intake. As discussed earlier, serotonin levels tend to drop in winter. When this happens, humans start to crave junk foods because high-sugar carb foods can produce more serotonin in the brain. However, try to focus the family diet on healthier forms of complex carbohydrates (like whole wheat or brown rice) because the same effects will result without the energy drain that can follow a sugar binge. "A better strategy for anyone with the winter blues would be to eat larger portions of complex carbohydrates, like pasta and rice, and healthy simple carbohydrates like fruits and fruit juices during meals, and stay away from unhealthy snacks that will cause momentary relief, but ultimately decrease energy," says Giorgio Piccoli in his article "Beating the Winter Blues." (http://www.gannett.cornell.edu/healthAtoZ/healthAdvice/winterBlues.html, accessed Dec. 2009)
Number Four: unleash creativity. Stimulate children's creativity and provide outlets to explore and experience. Put together a large plastic storage box with arts and craft materials, most of which can be gathered throughout the house. Have a fun afternoon in the kitchen. Allow children to make/assemble/serve food. If they are older, have them look up recipes, make a grocery list and add shopping to the adventure. Help children start a hobby, like building model rockets/cars, start a coin/card collection, scrapbooking, photography, sewing, music lessons, cake decorating, song writing, reading, etc. Create a family theatrical production; write the play (and commercials), give everyone a part (director, costumer, prop mistress, actor, etc.), create the backdrop, practice the play, video the play. It will make entertainment for years to come. Visit museums and libraries. Make a family band, each member making his own instrument. Put on some classical music and have a family conducting contest. Invest in a few head lamps (the ones hikers wear on their foreheads) and create outdoor games in the dark; have a peanut hunt, buried treasure hunt, freeze tag, or basketball in the dark. Give children the opportunity to explore the possibilities and lend a hand in getting it started. Boredom and pent-up energy are never a problem when creativity is unleashed.
Even though the season is right, there is a cure and antidote for Cabin Fever. Parents are not helpless and the solution is easier than a doctor visit and waiting rooms. It can be found in any home and in the hands of every parent. Winter can be a season celebrated for its uniqueness and for the changes it brings to every household. Don't let the fever break out. Averting Cabin Fever can turn a cold, dull brown landscape into a white canvas of magical proportions.
This disorder is more serious than what is traditionally considered Cabin Fever and calls for medical attention. It is estimated that half a million Americans are negatively affected by the changing seasons and darkening of the summer light. They feel depressed, irritable and tired. Their activity levels decrease, and they find themselves in bed more often. This depression disorder not only affects their health, but it also affects their everyday life, including their job performance and friendships.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
Although your child's symptoms are clues to a diagnosis, not everyone with seasonal affective disorder has the same symptoms, and only your doctor can make an accurate diagnosis. And symptoms associated with SAD are similar to symptoms that occur in other types of depression. Some of the most common symptoms include:
* Change in appetite
* Weight gain
* A heavy feeling in arms or legs
* A drop in energy level
* A tendency to oversleep
* Difficult concentrating
* Increased sensitivity to social situations
* Avoidance of social situations
Can SAD be treated?
Yes. Winter depression is thought to be caused by a body's reaction to lack of sunlight. Light therapy is one option for treating the condition. More aggressive treatments include antidepressant medications and behavioral therapy. Only your doctor can prescribe a treatment for your child's particular condition.
(http://www.yourchildshealth.com/family/winblues.html, accessed Dec. 2009)
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