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Extreme Weather and Your Mood

Winter in Chicago is an unpredictable affair that can range from dry and mild to ice-crusted and bitter, and with wild variations not only in the same season but often the same week.  This one has been one for the books.  Our most recent snowfall a week into March (and realistically, measurable snow well into April – and occasionally, if rarely, May – is hardly unheard of) crowned the winter of 2013-14 with the dubious honor of being the 3rd snowiest for Chicago in recorded history. 

So, like… yay.

Even better, we’ve enjoyed learning new meteorological terms such as “polar vortex” and “Alberta Clipper”, both of which I initially thought the meteorologists on our local news were just making up to sound authoritative when telling us, “It’s going to be really, really effin’ cold again tonight.  Tomorrow too.  And next week?   Yep, gonna be colder than a (insert semi-profane euphemism for something horribly cold).”  Turns out both “polar vortex” and “Alberta Clipper” are real phenomena, albeit things only people in, say, Minnesota or the Dakotas should normally have to know or worry about.  Snow is fine and cold is expected but so much snow and cold, and so relentlessly, and it just gets to be a bit much. 

But that’s just us; it’s been a bitter winter for a lot of the country, including even the normally mild South, where uncommonly cold and wintry weather has caused serious problems (an unfortunate friend in Florida even had one of his trips to Disney World virtually ruined when the water parks were closed due to cold).  And don’t harsh winter conditions offer a variety of problems to police officers, no matter where they work?  Of course there are the annoying fender benders and motorist assists, white-knuckling a rear-wheel drive motorized hockey puck through the streets, constantly defiling clean uniforms with road salt (note to Georgia: road salt is a substance we north of the Mason-Dixon Line put on the streets in icy/snowy conditions to avoid 8 million car pile-ups) no matter how careful we might be to avoid touching anything dirty and/or salty, and that wonderful sensation of our skin cracking under freezing conditions regardless how much lotion we smear on it.  But beyond that, there are the other psychological winter hazards we all face, all directly related to the winter weather, and all we can counter.

You’ve all worked those times the clocks are frozen and your radios are stuck on “zilch.”  Nothing is happening; even the “usual” drunks and frequent flyers won’t come out to play, and it’s easier for the regular burglars, dopers, and domesticators to stay in and play nice for a change, or get a straight job to pay the bills.  What’s an honest, hard-working, self-motivated cop to do?  Unfortunately, and too often, the answer is to simply become burned out, tired, and unmotivated.  The lack of activity may be a welcome respite from running hot more often than not, but it can also become a habit in and of itself.  At its worst, the officer becomes lost in the ennui and loses sight of the mission behind being a LEO; routine and boredom overcome drive, cynicism and burnout are entrenched, and there’s little to look forward to on each shift as it’s only going to be another 8, 10, or 12 hours fighting to stay awake and engaged. 

I recently crossed paths with one of our probationers, a perpetually happy, upbeat, energetic kid and asked how she was enjoying Mids.  Her smile dropped off and she shook her head in disbelief at how “dead” it was, and so different than what she’d expected.  Granted, soon enough the weather will warm – provided we’re not on the cusp of a new ice age – and she’ll have more than her share of action to learn from, but for now staring out at frozen darkness for hours on end is energy and motivation depleting.  How much more so must it be when the suck lasts for months rather than the few weeks of a single FTO cycle? 

Most of you have probably heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  Possibly you’ve experienced it yourself.  Typically thought of as a winter affliction, SAD also strikes some people in the summer months and causes people with otherwise normal mental health to experience the symptoms of major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, and may require treatment interventions to regulate.  SAD is not considered a separate mental illness but a “course specifier” to one of those other recognized disorders. 

The origins of SAD are not entirely known; it may be an evolutionary adaptation that acts on certain persons brains to slow them down during times of temperature extremes (our forebears would have become much less active to preserve energy and require less food and water at these extremes, and the adaptation promotes a lethargy) or, in the case of the winter blues, related to biochemical changes brought on by limited exposure to sunlight.  The connection to sunlight seems to be the strongest probably correlation. 

But even those of us don’t experience full-blown seasonal affective disorder can experience lethargy, boredom, frustration, irritability, or other effects when the seasons are inhospitable, there is little mental stimulation, and our favored rhythms of life and work are upset.  Recognizing when this happens and taking steps to avoid the winter (or summer) blues can improve mood and keep our motivation high, when everything seems to be dragging us down.  Take action by:

Getting up and getting outside

It’s not easy to be motivated to get up and go anywhere when it means wandering out into harsh conditions if you don’t absolutely need to.  It can be hard enough to leave the house for work, especially when activity levels plunge or what action you do have is hindered by environmental challenges, but hunkering down can sap energy, drive, and mood.  It also deprives us of sunlight.

It’s long been recognized that the occurrence of SAD is much greater in northern regions of the world where there is less sunshine during winter and the people who live there are more likely to retreat indoors.  But for many sufferers of SAD and SAD symptoms, just making a concerted effort to find and expose themselves to natural sunlight produces great relief.  The science behind it is too involved to discuss here, but braving the climate can have tremendous results.

Stimulating your mind and muscles

Seasonal slumps may have an evolutionary origin; although human ancestors did not truly “hibernate” during extreme seasons they did slow down to conserve energy and require less food and water.  As the body slows, so goes the brain, and now this lack of cognitive exertion contributes to an emotional slump. 

We’re easily tempted to give in to the pull of diminished intellectual activity but should actually take the time to increase it.  When activity on the street creeps along slowly it is the perfect time to take on neglected projects, revisit stalled investigations, or challenge yourself to creatively address issues.  Stimulating your brain improves mood and encourages neural growth. 

Likewise, rather than sinking into physical inactivity, increasing exercise has a positive correlation with mood and making the effort to overcome the inertia of these times is well worth it.

Knowing when to seek help

For some, personal efforts to work through and past seasonal slumps might be inadequate if they do have major depression brought on, or aggravated, by the effects of SAD.  If this is you, please consider speaking to a professional.  If depressed moods are determined to result from SAD there are both traditional and unique therapies available to alleviate them. 

Certain times of the year in certain parts of the world can have a serious negative impact on the quality of our emotional health.  Understanding this, recognizing when it is happening to you, and making a conscious effort to beat the low moods can bridge those times we all are susceptible to “the blues.”