Contending with the winter blues, or SAD

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It is very common for us to experience the winter blues living in Minnesota with the decreased sunlight, frigid temperatures and relentless snow. With the holidays occurring during the winter, this may lead to increased stress and challenges which can impact your mood during this season.

Many of us find that although we may be more fatigued and gloomy, we are still able to function and get the things done that need doing. However, if during the fall and winter months you are experiencing depressive symptoms for two weeks or more that interfere with your ability to function, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of mood disorder that follows a seasonal pattern where symptoms begin in fall and continue through winter. The signs of SAD are the same as major depression and include the following symptoms:

  • Having little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Feeling down, depressed or hopeless
  • Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or having little energy
  • Having a poor appetite or overeating
  • Feeling bad about yourself, that you are a failure or that you have let others down
  • Having trouble concentrating on things such as television or reading
  • Moving or talking so slowly that others have noticed; or the opposite, being fidgety and restless and moving around a lot more than usual
  • Having thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way

If you find that you have been having thoughts of harming yourself, know that help is available now. Calling or texting the suicide prevention resources identified below can help you get through your current feelings of hopelessness and direct you to additional supportive services.

Depression is very common; it is estimated that 6.7 percent of the population, approximately 16 million people, experiences some form of depression each year (www.healthline.com). Depressive symptoms are treatable, and if you are experiencing any of the above signs or having difficulty functioning, please consult with a mental health professional or your primary care provider.

Some with SAD may experience a craving for carbohydrates (carbs) and sugar that can lead to a weight gain. There are “bad” carbs and “good” carbs. Examples of “bad” carbs include cookies, cakes, candy, chips, white bread and sugary drinks like soda and fruit juice. “Good” carbs include whole grains, beans, nuts and vegetables.

Women experience SAD four times more often than men, and it often has an onset between the ages of 20-30. Those who live in regions where winters are cold, dark, snowy and long (like Minnesota) are at higher risk for SAD.

One of the reasons that people experience SAD is because during winter, the days are shorter, which means there is less sunlight. This reduced sunlight can lead to a decrease in one of the chemicals in the brain (serotonin) that impacts mood. The increase in darkness can also impact a hormone called melatonin, which helps to regulate our internal biological clock that regulates sleep and wake cycles.

Here are some things that you can do to reduce the winter blues:

  1. Get the recommended daily dose of vitamin D. Good sources include cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, tuna, milk, yogurt, sardines, eggs, and cereals fortified with vitamin D or supplements.
  2. Make a book and movie list. When you are shut in is a good time to catch up on reading or to watch that movie that you have been planning to watch, especially comedies. Laughter has been shown to stimulate chemicals and hormones in the brain that are related to your mood as well as boosting your immune system. An article in Psychology Today reports that kindergarteners tend to laugh on average 300 times each day. Adults only laugh 17 times per day, so this is certainly an area for improvement.
  3. Provide structure to your life. When you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, it helps stabilize your body’s internal clock. It also helps to eat three meals per day at the same time every day.
  4. Listen to upbeat or positive music. No matter what your favorite type of music may be, you can find some that will lift your mood.
  5. Increase physical activity. It is not required that you attend a gym or exercise classes to get the benefit of physical activity. Any activity that uses your muscles and energy — household chores, outdoor activities, walking, taking the stairs — can have positive benefits not only on your mental state, but on your physical health as well. Consult with your primary care provider before changing your activity or beginning an exercise program.
  6. Photo-therapy or bright-light therapy has been shown to be effective in reducing depression in many people who use it. During this treatment, a light box with special bulbs is used that mimics daylight. With a diagnosis of SAD, some insurances companies may cover the cost of light therapy boxes.

Available resources: Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255; Suicide Prevention Text, 741741; Adult Mobile Crisis Team (COPE), 612-596-1223; Child Mobile Crisis Team, 612-348-2233; Acute Psychiatric Emergency Room (APS) at HCMC, 612-873-3161

About Dr. Deirdre Golden

Dr. Deirdre Golden, director of behavioral health at NorthPoint Health & Wellness, welcomes reader responses to 612-543-2705.

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