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Combating the Winter Blues

02/03/2014 02:15 EST | Updated 04/03/2014 05:59 EDT

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"Only in the darkness can you see the stars." ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Having always lived in a place where you experience the changing seasons, I appreciate that every season brings something new. Spring welcomes growth, summer welcomes warmth, fall welcomes vibrant colours and winter....well, it welcomes snow, cold and short days. As a child, winter offers a delightful array of outside activities, whereas as an adult, we often think of shoveling, winter driving and less sunlight. It is not surprising that many of us have experienced the "winter blues" to some degree. Although the climate may not change, how we approach winter may change how we "feel" about it.

What are the winter blues?

The winter blues is essentially a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) also known as Seasonal Depression. When we refer to the winter blues, we are usually referring to SAD. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at a certain time of the year, usually in the winter. SAD is thought to occur in up to 15% of the population (including the milder form of winter blues) and is more common in women, young adults and in regions of higher latitude. Not surprisingly, SAD is less common in warmer climates.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

The interesting aspect of SAD compared to other mood disorders, is that it usually has a predictable beginning and an end. In order to classify your low mood as SAD, it has to have recurred at least 2 consecutive winters in a row without any other explanation for your mood change.

The other symptoms of SAD are similar to depression including:

Loss of interest in usual activities

Change in sleep and eating patterns

Feeling of hopelessness

Withdrawal from social activities

Anxiety

Irritability

Poor concentration

Fatigue

How can I combat the winter blues?

Treating the winter blues is often the same as managing SAD, however, some people with SAD may need antidepressant medication. Commonly, more conservative approaches are successful for both.

1) Try to obtain more sunlight. It may be cold out, but if there is any sunshine, getting outside or sitting by a window may be beneficial.

2) Light therapy is a common approach to increase light exposure. Light boxes are readily available at medical supply stores and can provide benefits within a couple of days. You may want to consult a healthcare professional to determine the amount of time that is suitable for you to be by your light box. I live in a northern climate and try to use a light box a couple of times a week during late fall to early spring.

3) Maintain an active lifestyle. Physical activity can improve your mood and relieve stress.

4) Engage in mind-body therapies such as meditation, yoga and massage. All are effective solutions to improve your overall well-being.

As with anything, prevention is the key. If you know you are susceptible to the winter blues or SAD, adjust your lifestyle before the days become shorter. Maybe plan a holiday somewhere warm, look into light therapy or sign up for yoga classes. Overall, SAD is treatable and somewhat preventable. Recognition is the first step.

Are you sensitive to lack of sunlight? How do you handle the winter blues?

SAD Resources:

Winter Blues, Fourth Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder by Norman E. Rosenthal

Canadian Mental Health Association British Columbia

10 Facts About Seasonal Affective Disorder