Beating the Winter Blues

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  • September 2, 2014

The days get shorter, the nights get colder, and as you search for your woollies, you begin to dread the long winter ahead. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are people who suffer the symptoms of depression during the winter months, but not everyone who experiences “down times” during the winter is necessarily suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder is the name given to a pattern of Major Depression where the essential feature is the onset and remission of Major Depressive Episodes at characteristic times of the year. In most cases, the episodes begin in fall or winter and the symptoms subside in the spring. To obtain a diagnosis of SAD, this pattern must have occurred over a period of at least two years without any non-seasonal episodes of depression occurring during this period. In addition, the number of seasonal episodes must be more prevalent than other episodes of Major Depression during an individual’s lifetime. The prevalence of SAD increases with higher latitudes. It is also known that younger persons and women are at higher risk of developing winter depressive episodes.

The treatment of SAD is very effective and addresses both the biological and psychological components. Research has demonstrated that a combination of anti-depressant medication, cognitive/behavioural therapy, and light therapy is the most effective treatment. An excellent self-help book often utilized as an adjunct to therapy is written by Dr. David Burns and is called the Feeling Good Handbook. Dr. Burns examines how thoughts, actions and feelings are all interrelated and discusses how we can influence our emotions through conscious thought and action.

While most people do not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of SAD, many people do feel a slight shift in their frame of mind and energy level as winter approaches. The combinations of a change in diet, activity level, and exposure to daylight that generally accompany the colder weather can contribute to a feeling of listlessness and low mood. Those with less activity and who feel trapped indoors, tend to seek comfort in food (often sugars and carbohydrates). The resulting gradual weight gain adds to the feelings of unhappiness. Some people also tend to feel more tired and sleep more in the winter than in the summer. This is likely a result of the increased periods of darkness and a general withdrawal of physical and social activity.

People with mild symptoms of decreased mood and energy level can beat the winter blues. You will benefit from spending more time outdoors during the day and getting as much natural light as you can. You can arrange your environment so that you receive maximum sunlight by trimming tree branches that block light or by keeping the curtains open during the day. Arrange the furniture in your home or office to be closer to the window, think about installing skylights or even just add lamps to increase the light in a room. We all know that exercise relieves stress, builds energy and increases both mental and physical wellbeing. Develop a habit of daily activity whether it is going to the gym, running on a treadmill in front of the TV, walking outdoors, skating, shovelling snow, or anything that just gets you moving. While it is best to initiate an exercise program before the onset of your winter blues, it is even better if you can continue your summer exercise program. Avoiding the winter blues is a great excuse for taking a winter vacation to somewhere sunny and warm but your doctor probably won’t write you a prescription for two weeks on the beach. Resist the urge to load up on comfort foods and make a conscious effort to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter months. You are not a bear even though you may feel a strong instinct to hibernate.

Have fun, stay active, get outside, and stay connected to people. While all good things come to an end, all bad things come to an end too. You can count on the fact that spring will be here in no time!

Dr. Stephen Carter, Registered Psychologist
Dr. Shirley Vandersteen, Registered Psychologist