The Winter Blues

Wintertime is full of exciting events, from major holidays to cozy days at home. Despite all there is to be happy about, winter is also known for giving people the blues. Winter is far worse for people with the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder (commonly known as SAD).

The winter blues are quite common, with many of us experiencing a mood shift during the colder, darker days of winter. This does make sense since it is a time when even nature slows down and goes within. You may find yourself feeling more lethargic and down overall. Although you may feel more gloomy than usual, the winter blues typically don’t hinder your ability to enjoy life.

But if your winter blues start permeating all aspects of your life, from work to relationships, you may instead be dealing with SAD. SAD is a recurrent type of depression associated with the change in seasons. It typically starts in the fall and can persist throughout the winter months.

SAD is more complicated than wanting to hunker down and stay in for the night. It’s more than simply cursing another blizzard. And it’s more than longing for those first days of spring. Basically, it’s much more than the winter blues. SAD can be debilitating for some people. Luckily, effective help is available.

The primary culprit of both the winter blues and SAD is the lower level of natural sunlight we are exposed to in the fall and winter. Less natural light can cause the following problems: dips in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, disruptions in circadian rhythms (your body’s internal clock), which help control sleep-wake cycles, and alterations in melatonin, a hormone associated with both mood and sleep.

The most common symptoms of the winter blues are general sadness and a lack of energy. Other symptoms of the winter blues include the following: difficulty sleeping, feeling less social than usual, and finding difficulty taking initiative.

The hallmarks of SAD are sleeping too much and overeating. Other common SAD symptoms include the following a mood that is down or depressed most of the day, nearly every day, loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy, withdrawing and isolating yourself from friends and family, struggling to focus and perform at work or home, feeling constantly fatigued and lethargic, feeling hopeless about the future, and even in some cases, having suicidal thoughts.

If you’re experiencing depressive symptoms (even mild ones associated with the winter blues) it is important to talk to your primary care doctor or a psychologist to discuss your options.

While symptoms of the winter blues and, to some extent, symptoms of SAD may dissipate in the spring, you shouldn’t suffer silently, experts say. The good news about both the winter blues and SAD is there are a number of evidence-based treatments that can be quite effective in alleviating your symptoms. Discuss the following treatments with your clinician:

Sunlight: It’s important to get outside whenever the sun is out during these darker days. Take a walk during your lunch break, play with your kids in the snow or try an outdoor winter activity like snowshoeing, skiing or ice-skating. Exposing yourself to natural light will help boost serotonin production and your overall mood.

Light therapy: As the current standard of care for SAD, light therapy replicates natural light with light boxes, which use white fluorescent bulbs to mimic sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down.

Exercise: Research consistently shows a strong exercise-mental health connection, particularly for those with depression and anxiety. That’s why experts often refer to exercise as nature’s antidepressant. Exercise can increase serotonin and endorphins, which both affect mood. Moderate exercise of at least 30 minutes most days of the week may provide the biggest mood boost.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy: A recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy can actually be a more effective long-term treatment for SAD than light therapy. While more research is needed in this area, cognitive-behavioral therapy is clinically proven to be extremely beneficial for all types of depression.

Maintaining a regular schedule during the winter months can help keep your hormones in balance and regulate your mood. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to help normalize your circadian rhythms. Structure your eating patterns by eating three meals a day, around the same time every day. Avoid the common urge in the winter to overindulge in simple carbohydrates, such as starchy or sweet foods; eat a balanced diet. Make (and keep) plans with friends and families to help you stay connected to your loved ones. Take time for yourself and engage in activities you enjoy.

Following these tips will help keep you healthy and thriving no matter the season.

This Month’s Inspirational Quote:
Not all storms come to disrupt your life,
some come to
clear your path

Judy ?