Practical Tips for Beating Winter Depression

New Jersey’s winter weather may have us in its grips and, for some people, the darker days hold on strong with symptoms of depression. Diagnosed by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists as Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern, this form of depression is often referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The usual characteristics of SAD include depression, social withdrawal, lethargy, hopelessness, and lack of interest in normal activities. You may also experience difficulty sleeping, oversleeping, and weight gain or loss. According to the Cleveland Clinic, an estimated 12 million people in Northern Europe suffer from this form of depression, and in the United States about 6% of the population may have it with up to 20% experiencing milder seasonal blues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness also reports that many people with SAD have at least one close relative with a psychiatric condition, such as a severe mood disorder or alcohol abuse.

You may know someone or even experience the symptoms yourself.

A retired friend recently shared with me that on gray days she wears pajamas all day meandering around the house, unable to tackle the slightest tasks. She can’t seem to overcome her negative thoughts and feelings, which confine her to the couch and flannel pjs. She has even become accustomed to avoiding the mail carrier as she fears he may notice her singular wardrobe in plaid for the week.

Some sufferers shuffle along to work under a cloak of invisible sadness, riding five days a week on the same chaotic commuter train. The journey ends when he arrives to the city full of dirty melting snow that exasperates his mood.  He reaches his office annoyed and easily set off by colleagues’ questions and requests. It’s that type of day every day for this commuter – or at least till spring arrives.

Or maybe our SAD sufferer is the mom getting the kids off to school. Irritability and fatigue have overcome her mood making it hard to manage mornings and after-school activities. The kids don’t understand her seeming lack of interest in their stories about their school day. She even broke down in the grocery store as she tried to sit her toddler in a cold, wet shopping cart.

The culprit for these personas’ recurring woes may be more than passing winter blues. The darker days of winter can bring on sadness and anxiety for many people living far from the equator and its tropical temps.

The exact cause of SAD, however, is not fully understood but it’s thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year. For some, this lack of sunlight affects a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls mood, appetite and sleep. The condition mainly strikes women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, although men can have it as well as children and adolescents. Authors Norman Rosenthal and Barry Whitehead were some of the first medical professionals to recognize SAD as a real disorder. They offer practical advice online on the topic. See resources below. You can also read my review of Dr. Rosenthal’s new book, The Gift of Adversity on my blog.

If you think you suffer from SAD, ask yourself how much is my winter depression impairing my social, emotional and physical functioning? Before you seek professional help, below is some practical advice for dealing with winter depression.

  • Light therapy or phototherapy. Mayo Clinic recommends light therapy as a first-line treatment and some people have found that when used correctly and consistently it generally works in a few days. During light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box or lamp that gives off bright light, which mimics natural outdoor light. The therapy is believed to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, easing depression symptoms, sleep disorders and other conditions. Companies like Philips and Verilux offer products available for purchase online.
  • Exercise daily. Since many of us rely on the sun and light to keep our brains and body clocks healthy during the winter months, consider adding a brisk walk to your day. As shore residents, we’re bestowed with beauty just outside our doors so dress warmly and seize the day.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Comfort foods can make you feel warm and cozy during the winter months but too much of these high calorie, heavy foods can affect your health. A balanced diet of fruits, vegetables and protein is especially important to ease depression symptoms.
  • Take a vacation. To quote Jimmy Buffet, “Changes in latitude; changes in attitude.” Book those winter getaways early so you have something to look forward to and enjoy those days away soaking in the sunny rays. You’ll return refreshed and in good spirit.
  • Meditate/Relax. Consider participating in yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises. Practice breathing exercises to bring yourself back and center your thoughts. Any of these activities can keep you from getting caught up in a landslide of negative emotions.

Many sufferers have been misdiagnosed as having hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections. Know the symptoms and seek help if you think you may have SAD. It’s highly treatable with three primary kinds of treatment: talk therapy, phototherapy and, if necessary, medication. For a lot of people, this type of depression is short-lived and manageable.

If you feel that private therapy would be beneficial, please contact me to schedule an appointment.

Additional Resources:

Norman E. Rosenthal, 2005, “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder”, USA, The Guilford Press

Barry S. Whitehead, 2004, “Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Global, Bioculture Perspective”, University of Alabama

All material contained on this blog is for information purposes only. This information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional psychological advice. Always consult a qualified professional prior to utilizing any of the information provided in this post.