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Beating the Winter Blahs! Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter season brings shorter days and colder weather. Over time, this can lead to feeling down and depressed, even for the most optimistic people. This is a normal phenomenon known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as winter depression or winter blues.

What Is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of mood disorder in which people experience depressive episodes in the autumn and winter, but they do not feel depressed in the spring and summer (1). SAD can also occur in people who already suffer from depression, leaving their depression worse during the winter months.

Who does SAD affect?

SAD most often occurs in women, adolescents and young adults. The further north you live, the more likely you are to experience seasonal affective disorder (1).

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Some common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Feeling down or depressed 
  • Problems with sleep 
  • Fatigue or lethargyO 
  • Overeating 
  • Increased irritability 
  • Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed 
  • Difficulty concentrating

How Do I Prevent or Treat SAD?

It is not possible to ignore the winter months, but there are many ways to lift your spirits and ease the mid-winter doldrums.

Here are a few ways to help you get over feeling SAD:

Exercise

Exercise is very effective at helping to beat the winter blues and has been proven to be as effective as an antidepressant for some people (1).

Besides lifting your mood, regular exercise offers many health benefits including regulating your blood pressure, protecting against heart disease and cancer, and boosting your self-esteem. Aerobic exercise, in particular, was found to reduce the severity of depressive symptoms in women with SAD (2).

Something as simple as taking a walk daily can help to prevent depression. Walking in the middle of the day, when possible, also provides the benefit of light therapy. SAD can be prevented by 30-60 minutes of exercise, along with 20 minutes of sunlight exposure each day (3).

Enjoy Natural Light

No matter how much you wish to remain indoors in the comfort of your home, it is important to go outdoors in natural daylight as much as possible. Lack of exposure to sunlight is one of the leading causes of seasonal affective disorder. Hence, it is recommended to get outside and enjoy some sunlight.

Sunlight has a direct effect on the body’s production of melatonin and serotonin, two neurotransmitters which help to regulate the circadian rhythm (4). It has been shown that regulation of the circadian rhythm can have a positive affect in prevention and treatment of mood disorders, including SAD (5).

During the winter, try to soak up as many rays as you can in a day. Open the blinds, pull the curtains back, or walk outside in direct sunlight. Even inside your home, try to choose pale colors that reflect light from outside, and sit near windows whenever you can.

A light box, which simulates natural light, is another effective tool in the fight against seasonal depression. Several studies have found evidence that light therapy can be a therapeutic intervention for prevention and treatment of depression (6). For the best results, you should sit in front of a light box for at least 30 minutes a day first thing in the morning (within 3 hours after waking) to stimulate your brain and boost your energy. However, some professionals recommend starting with shorter sessions and gradually increasing duration over time (7). There are different shapes and sizes of light boxes in the market. You can choose one that will be convenient for your daily use. However, white and blue light boxes are the most effective in beating winter blues.

Stay Warm

To fight an increased level of sadness during the winter months, it is important to stay warm. Cold weather tends to make you feel depressed as feeling cold makes you feel even more down. There is evidence showing a link between colder weather and lower mood (8,9). To keep warm, enjoy hot beverages and eat warm foods. You can opt for healthy herbal teas instead of your regular coffee as it tends to be dehydrating. Plus, make sure your home stays cozy, between 18 and 21 degrees Celsius (64 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit).

Meditate

Meditation is another way to help fight off feeling SAD. Meditation effectively relaxes both the body and the mind, which in turn leads to increased activity in the parts of the brain associated with happiness and reduced activity in the parts of the brain associated with stress. Studies have shown an association between meditation and increased release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter with known positive effects on mood (10).

There are different types of meditation that can prevent depression. Mindfulness is considered the most effective. In this type of meditation, you learn to pay deliberate and open-hearted attention to the moment-by-moment unfolding of the external and internal world. Start doing mediation for a few minutes initially, then gradually increase the time to at least 10 minutes a day.

Also, just a short 5-10 minute session of deep breathing offers mood-boosting benefits This helps you deal with the fluctuations that come with changing seasons in a much better way. When more oxygen enters the body, it has a calming effect on your mind and body. This is due to breath-activated pathways to all major networks involved in emotion regulation, perception, and subjective awareness, as has been shown during brain imaging studies (11).

Connect More with People

Relationships and happiness are connected, and vice versa. Hence, working on relationships is another good way to fight winter blues. It has been found that people with strong and broad social relationships are happier and healthier. Social interaction has been proven to produce positive mood reactions (12).

As socializing is good for your mental health, make all efforts to keep in touch with people you care about. Try to accept any invitations you get to social events, even if you only go for a little while. Always remember that socializing instills a feeling of self-worth and belonging.

Additional Tips

  • Color therapy can help boost your mood and stimulate certain feelings during the dark and gray winter months. Use vibrant and brilliant colors to bring cheer into your home.
  • Use aromatherapy to provide solace and evoke pleasant memories. 
  • Optimism and positive thinking can help to beat the winter blahs! 
  • Music, especially upbeat or cheery music, can significantly improve your mood. 
  • Get out of the cold weather. Take a vacation to a warmer climate with a lot of sunshine can be very beneficial for your physical and mental well-being. 
  • Maintainance of a regular sleep schedule can help to maintain balance through the body’s circadian rhythm. No matter how much you want to sleep until noon, stick to your regular sleep schedule. 

If your depression symptoms are more serious, talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be what you need. There are several support groups, in person or online, which can help you connect with others experiencing similar symptoms. Support groups allow you to interact socially, especially if you go in person, and allow you to share your experience with others.

References:

  1. Peiser B. Seasonal affective disorder and exercise treatment: a review.@Biological Rhythm Research. 2009;40(1):85-97.
  2. Roecklein KA, Rohan KJ. Seasonal Affective Disorder An Overview and Update.@Psychiatry. 2005;2(1):20-26. Accessed October 31, 2018.
  3. Rosenthal NE.@Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. New York: Guilford Press; 2013.
  4. Mead MN. Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health.@Environmental Health Perspectives. 2008;116(4). doi:10.1289/ehp.116-a160.
  5. Germain A, Kupfer DJ. Circadian rhythm disturbances in depression.@Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental. 2008;23(7):571-585. doi:10.1002/hup.964.
  6. Perera S, Eisen R, Bhatt M, et al. Light therapy for non-seasonal depression: systematic review and meta-analysis.@BJPsych Open. 2016;2(02):116-126. doi:10.1192/bjpo.bp.115.001610.
  7. Light therapy. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/light- therapy/about/pac-20384604. Published February 8, 2017. Accessed October 31, 2018.
  8. Keller MC, Fredrickson BL, Ybarra O, et al. A Warm Heart and a Clear Head: The Effects of Weather on Mood and Cognition.@PsycEXTRA Dataset. 2003. doi:10.1037/e416902005-500.
  9. Beat The Winter Blues. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. https://www.strath.ac.uk/seesdirectorate/studentupdates/winterblues/. Accessed November 2, 2018.
  10. Kjaer TW, Bertelsen C, Piccini P, Brooks D, Alving J, Lou HC. Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness.@Cognitive Brain Research. 2002;13(2):255-259. doi:10.1016/s0926-6410(01)00106-9.
  11. Brown RP, Gerbarg PL, Muench F. Breathing Practices for Treatment of Psychiatric and Stress-Related Medical Conditions.@Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 2013;36(1):121-140. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2013.01.001.
  12. Glomb TM, Bhave DP, Miner AG, Wall M. Doing Good, Feeling Good: Examining The Role Of Organizational Citizenship Behaviors In Changing MoodPersonnel Psychology. 2011;64(1):191-223. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.2010.01206.x.
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