Let's Talk About Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder

As I sit here watching the snow fall, I am filled with joy.  What?  JOY?? Yes!  I love it.  I even like the cold weather – my skin, on the other hand, does not… but I digress. Loving the snow and enjoying cold weather does not mean I don’t fall victim to the winter doldrums.  I do!   

A “winter funk” or “winter blues” is fairly common.  I’ve read reports that say as many as 25% of Americans suffer winter blues, while around 5% suffer from the more severe seasonal affective disorder (SAD).   We can differentiate SAD from winter blues; just because you feel down in the winter, doesn’t mean you have SAD.  Often SAD suffers will spend more time in bed and have great difficulty rising from bed, whereas someone with winter blues probably just doesn’t want to get out of bed because it is so comfortable (note to self: look up who invented the heated mattress pad).  It’s worth mentioning that folks with diagnosed bipolar or mood disorders are more likely to have SAD.  People with SAD have a recurrent pattern of having major depression in the fall/winter with improvement come springtime; this pattern is present over 2+ years.  People with winter blues identify the same symptoms, though not as severe as those with SAD.  

Symptoms include: 

  • depressed mode

  • no interest in usually pleasurable activities

  • decreased energy

  • increased appetite with weight gain 

  • irritability

  • difficulty concentrating

  • thoughts of death or suicide

  • feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt

Sounds a lot like depression, right?  It is depression – depression that hits right around the time the days start getting shorter.  Subsequently, the symptoms dissipate with the longer days of springtime.  Why? Some theories suggest that our circadian rhythm is out-of-whack, or that neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin levels are out-of-whack – both lend credence to the idea that somehow, less sunlight is making us, well, out-of-whack.  

What can you do? First, if you are having thoughts of death or suicide, tell someone; get help (resources listed at the end of this post).   

  • Talk to someone! Socialize.  Maybe there aren’t as many get-togethers as in the summer, but you can video chat or meet up someplace with a roaring fireplace and an amazing chili. (I crave bibimbap this time of year.)

  • Get outside! I know it’s cold.  Bundle up in all the latest wooly fashions and strut your stuff.  There are only a few hours of sunlight so take advantage of it.  When is the last time you made a snowman?

  • Light therapy. Google places near you that offer this or you can get your own light box online.  

  • Book a vacation somewhere that’s not cold and dark.  Remember,

    winter northern hemisphere = summer southern hemisphere

  • Eat right. Cut back on the carbs.  Sugar high! Sugar crash! 

  • Don’t lean on alcohol or drugs to help with this.  They don’t work for any of your other problems and won’t work magic on this either.

  • Speak to a professional, especially if you think this is SAD or if you feel this way all year.  It could be something else.  You may need medication.

On talking to someone… a therapist can help!  (Oh wait, I’m a therapist! Insert shameless self-promotion here.)  A therapist can help you learn healthy ways to deal with your symptoms.  A therapist can teach you to notice, acknowledge, and change those negative thoughts that are contributing to your low mood.  I use a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness to get you through this.  

Sometimes changing the way we frame something makes all the difference.  What sounds better? “I have to go shovel my sidewalk.” or “I get to play in the snow and workout at the same time.”  I love changing “I have tos” to “I get tos.”  Try it. It really changes things up!   

Good news is, the skills you learn for coping with SAD or winter funk can easily be transferred to other types of problems year-round – multi-purpose skills!   

One more thing… I’m playing around with a wake-up alarm clock with sunrise simulation.  I LOVE THIS THING!  I have mine set for the “sun” to rise 30 minutes before my alarm is set. The light starts out red and progressively gets brighter until it is “sunny” at alarm time.  I rise to birds chirping and a bright room, even if it’s 30 below and a blizzard outside. It has worked wonders for my mood and ability to rise without snoozing 17 times.  I ordered mine online.  Full disclosure: The one I bought was NOT cheap – in fact, it is ridiculously priced for an alarm clock but so far, it has real value to me. 

Do you have any tricks for dealing with the winter blues?  Have you always noticed it as a problem or just since you stopped getting snow days?  

Until next time,

Lauri

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