Dealing with the Winter Blues

Many people occasionally feel “down” or “blue” during the winter months while some others feel very down nearly all of the time. Problems with sleep or appetite, lowered energy, difficulty concentrating, apathy, and thoughts of suicide are some indications that what you are experiencing may be depression rather than “the winter blues,” or everyday ups and downs. These symptoms are a few indicators of Clinical Depression. Depression is a relatively common mental illness and the winter months can, in some cases, increase or trigger feelings of depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a diagnostic term used to describe people who experience Clinical Depression during the autumn or winter months. In the summer months these individuals often describe themselves as feeling “normal.”

In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, these symptoms are often associated with SAD:

  • Weight gain.
  • Extreme fatigue and lack of energy.
  • Increased need for sleep; sleeping much more than usual.
  • Carbohydrate craving and increased appetite.

SAD is more common in the north and less common in the south. Some studies suggest that as many as 10% of Alaskans experience what can be classified as SAD. In southern states such as Florida, some studies suggest as little as 1% of the population suffers from SAD. Meadville is definitely not Florida, nor is it Alaska. Winter days here are significantly colder and shorter than our summer months. As a result, this time of the year can be a down time for some of us.

Treatments are available for SAD. Light therapies, counseling, and antidepressant medications have proven to help alleviate SAD. Although we do not know exactly how light therapy helps, we know that it does have a biological effect on the body that often results in the lessening of symptoms associated with SAD. Counseling can help address interpersonal difficulties that may be contributing to depression. Counseling can help address mistaken beliefs and negative thought patterns that may be contributing to depression. We know that depression has a physiological component which may be effectively treated with antidepressant medications. Whether what you are experiencing is Clinical Depression or “the winter blues,” there are some things you can do to help yourself.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Spend more time outdoors and exercise regularly.
  • Change from your normal schedule. Do something that you enjoy or try something new even if you have to force yourself.
  • Avoid what causes you stress.
  • Talk with someone about what is bothering you.
  • Avoid alcohol and other mood-altering, non-prescription drugs.
  • Take prescribed medications. Maintain contact with your MD who prescribes your medications.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself.
  • Try not to make important life choices that have the potential to leave you feeling trapped or stuck.
  • Seek help from the Counseling Center, the Health Center or the Meadville Medical Center.

Clinical Depression and SAD are treatable. If your symptoms persist, make an appointment with the Counseling Center and the Health Center. Before treating yourself with light therapy it is best to be assessed by a qualified health provider. If you would like to find out more about SAD, depression, their symptoms, and appropriate treatments, stop by the Counseling Center for pamphlets, books, or to talk with a counselor.

Adapted directly from UBC/VHHSC Mood Disorders Clinic web site. Additional Information adapted from Winter Blues Seasonal Affective Disorder: What It Is and How to Overcome It by Dr. Norman Rosenthal. Guildford Press, New York, 1993.