Sunday, December 5, 2010

An Annotated Listicle: Winter Blues Edition


Those of you that have read the most recent issue of Bitch magazine may have seen my lengthy rant against the listicle featured in most women's magazines. If you haven't read the most recent issue of Bitch you should run out and buy it (or better yet, subscribe). I generally find listicles annoying because they're often lazily written, filled with stereotypes, and almost always include encourage spending money.

So just for fun, I'm going to go through and annotate a listicle. This one comes from The Frisky, although there's no reason I'm picking on The Frisky particularly -- the kinds of listicles they run are pretty common to what most media outlets, on or offline, do. So without further ado, the list below is reprinted in regular text with my commentary in italics.

20 Ways To Beat The Winter Blues
Wendy Atterberry
11:30AM, 12/03/2010

We are less than three weeks away from the shortest day of the year and if you’re anything like me, you’re starting to feel the effects of the winter blues—or Seasonal Affective Disorder—begin to set in. Sure, we have a little distraction with the holidays, but come January if we haven’t set up some routine to break us out of a winter rut, we may find ourselves in danger of barely hanging on until spring. A few weeks ago, you shared some of your ideas for combating the winter blues, and after the jump is a roundup of some of those suggestions plus a few of my own to get us motivated to tackle the long months ahead.
  1. Wear bright colors. There's actually no evidence to suggest that wearing bright colors could affect your mood. This likely comes from the unsubstantiated idea of positive thinking projects a better mood.
  2. Change your light bulbs. I recommend Blues Busters, which produce a light like natural sunlight and cost about $7 a bulb. I started using them a few years ago and they’ve helped tremendously ease the effects of SAD. Blues Busters are energy efficient light bulbs and there actually is some evidence to think that more and better lighting can help elevate one's mood during winter months when sunlight is more scarce. However, there seems little reason to invest in these light bulbs in particular. It seems likely that any energy efficient light bulb would do the same thing just as well -- and cost a lot less. File this item in the category of trying to sell you shit.
  3. Squeeze in a daily daytime walk. If you can bundle up and get out on your lunch break for a 20-minute stroll, do it! If you can’t swing that, consider waking up a little earlier so you can catch a few drops of sunlight before work. If you take public transportation, get on one stop past yours so you can sneak in some sun before you’re stuck in an office all day and miss it. It is actually the case that exercise can help you combat the symptoms of depression. According to the Mayo clinic, exercise has a lot of benefits, but the reasons it works on depression includes that it causes your brain to release neurotransmitters and endorphins, surpresses immune system responses that can cause depression, and raises you're body temperature, which can have a calming effect.
  4. Take a Vitamin D supplement. A study published last year in Applied Nursing Research does seem to indicate that vitamin D can be of particular help to women in battling seasonal depression. However, the study wasn't large enough to be conclusive.
  5. Take St. John’s Wort. This helps ease mild depression associated with SAD, but if you’re on any medication, like birth control, make sure it doesn’t interfere. St. John's Wort is generally peddled by alt medicine practitioners (much of what they sell is proven to have no effect), St. John's Wort is a drug that contains hypericin, something that has an MAO inhibitor, similar to what you might find in commonly prescribed anti-depressants. But it seems like if you're going to suggest someone take a drug like St. John's Wort, it seems best to simply encourage her to see a physician that can describe the anti-depressant that might work best for her.
  6. Socialize more. Organize a weekly potluck or happy hour with friends. Join an evening knitting group or a neighborhood game night. The point is to get out of the rut of office-home-bed that’s so easy to fall into when it’s cold out. Filling some of your after-work hours with friends will help you stay positive and energized through the dark winter months. While social interaction with others is generally psychologically healthy, there's actually evidence that the way girls in particular are socialized from a young age -- to be deferential to others and more sensitive to others' feelings -- can actually increase the likelihood of depression in women.
  7. Invest in some fresh flowers. A burst of color does wonder for one’s mood, and flowers don’t have to be expensive. Carnations, long thought to be granny flowers, are making a bit of a comeback (I love a bunch of hot pink ones cut shorts and kept in something unexpected, like a vintage teacup). A five-dollar bunch can last up to ten days. There's no evidence to suggest that flowers might help with depression, seasonal or otherwise. File this under yet another tip that encourages you to spend money.
  8. Two words: Winter sports. Skiing, sledding, ice skating, snow boarding are great ways to stay active during the cold months. Even if you don’t live in an area where those activities are easily accessible (or affordable), simply hiking through the snow or making snowmen burns calories and gets you out in the fresh air and sunlight. Again, this goes back to the point about exercise.
  9. Paint your walls. It’s like taking the idea of fresh flowers to the next level. And if you don’t like the color, or if you are tired of it by spring, you can always paint over it! This seems to advice from the feng shui school of thought. While painting your house or apartment (assuming you can and you don't have a rental that won't allow you to), this is unlikely to help you with any actual depression problems.
  10. Whiskey. Hey, it keeps you warm and feeling good. So advise people to cheer up by consuming a depressant? Uh, OK.
  11. Eat a piece of chocolate a day. Eh, why not? Doctors say a small piece of dark chocolate (at least 60% cocoa) is good for you! Actually, though there is some research that shows chocolate has a temporary mood-booster quality, there's also other evidence that chocolate can actually be worse in the long run for depression (though it's possible this is correlation and not causation).
  12. Keep the shades open. Let the sunshine in! Like exercise, natural light does help with depression, but for a lot of people in winter months, they may go to work before it's light, come home after it's dark, and work in an office or cubicle that's not near an outside space. So, while this might be good advice, probably the best advice is trying to take a walk in the middle of the day.
  13. Invest in a light box. One of our readers recommends the Philips goLITE Blu Plus, which she says has helped her immensely. This is a commercial adaptation of the devices given to folks that live in geographic areas with little-to-no sunlight during the day. Again, it seems if you're really in desperate need of something like this, you should be talking with your doctor about depression. Otherwise, file this under selling you shit you don't need.
  14. Retail therapy. Help yourself, help the economy! Yeah. You know what's known to contribute to depression? Financial distress. You'd probably be better off putting that money into your Roth IRA or 401K.
  15. Warm drinks: tea, coffee, steamers, hot chocolate. Yum. Hey, I know holiday cheer generally comes with warm drinks, so I get why they suggested this. But still, let's not confuse temporary mood boosters with serious depression problems.
  16. Lots of sex. Also, yum. Prescribing sex goes back to the exercise advice. The problem is, if you're also suggesting women take anti-depressants (see #5), you need to remember they often have side effects that suppress sexual desire.
  17. Plan a spring break vacation. I’ve heard that the act of planning a vacation has more benefits than the actual vacation itself, so pick somewhere warm and start strategizing! OK, it's pretty clear this is unsubstantiated from the writer's own language. If planning vacations is something you enjoy, I guess go for it. Personally, I think this sounds stressful.
  18. Indulge in a facial or massage. Winter is brutal on our skin and I don’t know about you, but I get tense shoulders from wearing heavy layers and coats all day, so a monthly facial or massage through the winter months is a wonderful way to practice self-care and keep one’s spirits lifted. Although this blog post for the Mayo clinic's depression blog seems to indicate there's preliminary research that suggests massages might help with depression, I'm a tad skeptical, since it seems to be filed under their "alternative treatments" series -- and alternative treatments often vastly overestimate their effects on serious illnesses. This Reuters article notes that studies on massage and depression aren't scientifically rigorous, especially given that they haven't come up with a way to blind the studies. It seems likely the positive effects of this are due to taking time to relax. It seems likely you could have the same effects if you simply took some quiet time to de-stress each day.
  19. Try a new hobby. Winter is a great time to take up knitting, but regardless what the activity is, filling your time with something new — especially something you can do with others — helps break the winter rut and keep the blues away. As someone who's just re-taught herself knitting in the last year, I'm totally in support of people taking up hobbies they enjoy. But again, it's unclear how this might relate to seasonal depression.
  20. Listen to lively music. Again, chalk this up to alternative therapy mumbo jumbo. The New York Times, in an article about music therapy for depression, even says "there aren’t many credible studies of music therapy for depression." If listening to some Robyn gets you going, great. But don't let this make you believe it's a treatment for serious depression problems.

The main problem with this listicle is that it seems to lump together both serious depression problems (including SAD) with general "mood boosters" that probably do nothing to affect one's happiness or mood problems in the long run but are designed to cheer oneself up. That's all well and good, but it would've been nice for them to note that if you're experiencing serious problems with depression -- and give some tips for how to spot it in yourself and others -- then you should probably think about going to see a doctor or counselor. Instead they offer "retail therapy" and alternative treatments that are unlikely to work on serious problems with depression.

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