by Nancy Woo
With winter in full swing, and for approximately 5% of the U.S. population, so too is winter depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The acronym is ironically appropriate, as seasonal affective disorder can drastically shift a person’s mood, appetite and energy levels during certain times of the year, usually winter. Symptoms may include becoming uncharacteristically lethargic, fatigued, depressed, anxious, withdrawn, irritable or hopeless. You may sleep more, care less about work, relationships or health, experience decreased sex drive, isolate yourself from friends and family, and crave carbohydrates and gain weight. Though seasonal mood changes can occur during the summer, SAD is generally used to describe the period beginning in late autumn and ending in early spring; during this time, sufferers experience an extreme form of “winter blues.” SAD is a subtype of major depressive disorder.
So, you’ve noticed yourself getting more depressed during the winter. Some theories attribute SAD to the lack of light available during winter months, especially in northern regions. Women tend to be more prone to SAD, and some hypothesize it is to curb reproductive urges during the hibernation period. Whatever the cause of major winter blues, it can really drain the color from life for a significant portion of the year. The good news is that after becoming aware of the condition, you can definitely take steps to alleviate symptoms.
Here are 5 ways to fight off those ugly winter blues:
1. Light therapy
Because the winter has shorter days and less sunlight, most theories pinpoint this lack of light as a major cause of SAD. Investing in some sort of light therapy can be very helpful in keeping mood levels stable. Light boxes that intentionally mimic the sun’s UV rays are available in some specialty stores and online. Using this light for 30 minutes a day, preferably in the morning to mimic sunrise, has been shown to stabilize mood in 3-4 weeks when started in early autumn. Talk to a health professional before beginning light therapy.
2. Take Vitamin D Supplements
With a lack of sunlight also goes a lack of vitamin D, a very important mineral used to produce seratonin, the “happy” hormone. Sunlight naturally carries vitamin D, which we absorb through the skin, so losing that regular amount may account for depressed mood. Drinking a lot of milk rich in vitamin D and taking vitamin D supplements during the winter can help offset the environmental change.
For all types of depressive disorders, exercise has been proven over and over again to be one of the most important factors to recovery. Exercising regularly releases important neurotransmitters such as seratonin and dopamine, those hormones responsible for feelings of happiness and joy. Exercise is a wonderful stress reducer; keeping the body healthy directly translates to keeping the mind healthy, too. The only obstacle to overcome during the winter is finding the motivation to go out and actually do it, but keep in mind how much better you will feel with regular exercise, and have the strength of willpower to brave the elements and get your body moving. Moderate to strenuous exercise 3-4 times per week is recommended.
4. Counseling and/or Support Groups
Coming down with a case of the winter blues, which may include losing interest in normal activities and feeling suddenly hopeless and tired all the time, can be extremely confusing and disorienting. SAD can compound other depressive factors, too, so seeking therapy from a psychologist can do wonders to help sift through the reasons behind the mood changes, and help provide concrete behavioral changes that can improve quality of life. For any type of depression, simply talking about the feelings can start to relieve the misery, and a psychologist can provide valuable insight on your mind. If you can’t afford psychotherapy, find a support group near you, or confide in a close friend who will understand. Isolating yourself is one of the worst things to do when suffering from depression, seasonal or not, so get yourself out there and don’t be afraid that other people will judge you; you may be surprised to find how many sympathizers there are, as long as you are actively seeking solutions.
5. Consider Antidepressants
If seasonal affective disorder has taken over your life and you’ve tried all over methods of relief, it may be time to consider taking prescribed medication to manage symptoms. Of course, you will need to discuss this option with your healthcare professional before making any decisions, but it may be worth trying if you feel suicidal or seriously impacted in your day to day life and nothing else has worked. A pharmacy technician can fill your doctor’s prescription for you. Sometimes chemicals in the brain are simply out of order, and medicine can help rebalance them.
Other general ways of combating the symptoms of SAD include maintaining (even if you don’t feel like it) a healthy lifestyle, including a nutritious diet and good sleep habits. Stay social! Oftentimes, hanging out with friends and family can serve to lift your mood, even if at first you feel like you’d rather curl up in bed and go to sleep. Staying active and doing your normal activities even when depressed can help you feel better; going through the motions often leads to eventually feeling normal again. Do the things that you know make you happy, and appreciate the little positive moments in life rather than dwelling on the bad ones. The key to beating the winter blues is to first acknowledge your seasonal shift in mood, and then commit yourself to taking action to stay healthy and mentally stable even during the dark times!
Nancy Woo is a writer from southern California who is fascinated by how the brain works. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/fancifulnance.