Much remains unknown about the winter-related shifts in mood, commonly referred to as the “winter blues”.
What is it about the dark, shorter days of winter that can leave some people feeling sad, irritated or less energetic?
“It appears to be a naturally occurring effect of winter. The cold weather, the snow push us to stay indoors and we isolate. We spend more time having memories of loved ones, happy times that are gone, our aging bodies etc., and we can easily fall prey to changes in our mood,” says Alex Pineda, a behavioral health consultant at Lancaster Health Center.
The good news is there are ways to lessen the effects that come with the changing of the seasons.
But how do we do that?
“Adaptation is probably the most admirable quality for humans. We have to find the positive parts of the seasons, and try to take advantage of them,” Pineda says. “Stay in contact with family, increase reunions with friends, get active in church, do not have the groceries delivered to you, go out and visit the supermarket,” Pineda says.
Keep Active. Keeping up with work, school or social obligations gives you momentum and focus that can make it easier to weather the tough days. Exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms of depression and make you feel better. So hit the gym or set aside some time for exercise or yoga at home.
Lighten up. Winter has its share of dark, gloomy mornings, but turning on your lamps and overhead lights can help lift your mood. Some people in particularly dark climates even invest in a light box, a specially designed fixture that produces a soft, steady light, or special lamps that mimic natural outdoor light. Opening blinds and curtains, trimming back tree branches, and sitting closer to windows can also help provide an extra dose of sunshine.
Listen to music. Music therapy seems to reduce depressive symptoms and anxiety, and helps to improve functioning. Choosing the appropriate music is important as different types of music evoke different types of neurological stimulation. Talking to a medical professional may help you choose the most effective therapy to suit your needs.
Get outside. Talking yourself into taking a walk isn’t easy, but spending time outside even when it’s chilly can improve your focus, reduce symptoms of depression, and lower stress levels.
“Most people already know that if they accept invitations, have coffee with their neighbor, bring hot soup to their sick grandpa or get together with family and friends, they end up with a feeling of accomplishment, of belonging, of joy,” Pineda says. “One of the actions that demand more effort is the first push to get out of the comfort of the home.”
When to see a doctor
It's normal to have some days when you feel down, especially during the winter months. In most cases, symptoms do go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer.
However, if you or someone you know can't get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy for days or weeks at a time, it is important to let your healthcare provider know because seasonal depression is more than just ‘the winter blues”.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern (it begins and ends about the same time each year). People who suffer from SAD often feel much more tired than normal during winter. The shorter days and reduced exposure to sunlight affect the body by disrupting sleep, appetite, memory, focus and energy.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the condition affects about 5% of people in the United States.
SAD symptoms may include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Having problems with sleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Only a professional can diagnose SAD, so it’s important to seek help as treatment can help prevent complications.