Cold, Dark Truth About Winter- Now’s the time for tackling those darned seasonal doldrums

Written by Contributor. Posted in Featured, Health & Wellness

Published on January 18, 2017 with No Comments

by Steve Euvino

Sensitivity to the lack of sunlight during winter’s shorter days disrupts our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. The degree of this sensitivity and resulting winter depression can be attributed to such factors as geography, genetics, and individual brain chemistry.

The holiday season is officially over. The Christmas tree and holiday decorations have been boxed up for another year. The relatives have long since left. The last oversized gift has been returned.

So why are you still feeling blue? Why are you still eating so much?

Maybe it’s just the time of year.

According to Psychology Today, the holidays bring many external demands, including shopping, cooking, travel, family reunions, office parties, and increased financial burdens. All this can lead to headaches, insomnia, uneasiness, anxiety, sadness, intestinal problems, and unnecessary conflicts with family and friends.

But beyond the holidays lies winter – with its natural coldness and shorter days – which can foul up our internal mechanisms, leading to seasonal doldrums. These winter blues affect one in four Americans, according to WebMD, usually starting in October and ending in April.

However, another 11 million Americans suffer from a more severe form of winter depression – seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which is typically diagnosed after two consecutive years of more intense symptoms.

Key symptoms of SAD include depression, sleep problems, lethargy, overeating, irritability, and feeling down and unsociable. While “normal” weight gain during the winter doldrums can be 5 to 6 pounds, those with SAD can tip the scale even more.

So, with all this winter beauty around us, why are we northerners depressed? The cause seems to stem from the same source – light, or the lack thereof.

Sensitivity to the lack of sunlight during winter’s shorter days disrupts our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. The degree of this sensitivity and resulting winter depression can be attributed to such factors as geography, genetics, and individual brain chemistry.

With SAD, the lack of sunlight causes the brain to work harder, producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates our body clock and sleep patterns. Melatonin has also been linked to depression.

As to geography, it should come as no surprise that the farther north from the equator you reside, the greater the risk of developing some form of winter depression. WebMD reports only about 1 percent of Floridians reports some depression due to winter, compared to about one-half of those living in the upper U.S. and southern Canada.

One solution to fighting winter depression is getting as much sunlight as possible. As light enters the eye, it triggers the body’s internal clock system. However, getting enough sunlight is difficult, with work and school schedules keeping people indoors during daylight hours. Also, since it’s colder these days, people tend to retreat indoors. Tinted vehicle windows can also block that healing sunlight.

Among the artificial cures are sunlight boxes and antidepressant medications. However, as Sue Pavlovich of the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association points out, SAD affects everyone differently, so what works for one person many not prove effective for another.

“But there’s usually something that will help,” Pavlovich said, “so don’t give up if the first remedy you try doesn’t work. Just keep trying.”

Practical tips for addressing serious winter depression include keeping active; getting outdoors; keeping warm; eating healthy; taking up a new hobby; seeing friends and family; talking about your condition; listening to music; exercising; helping others; and seeking professional help and joining a support group;

At a Community Healthcare System’s Behavioral Health Services program on “Beating the Holiday Blues” Nov. 9 at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart, Jake Messing, a licensed clinical social worker for Community, outlined ways to address depression this season.

Those suggestions included doing something for someone else, such as community volunteering. Spend time with supportive people – “pick the winners,” Messing said, adding that winter provides an opportunity to spend time with new people.

“Take advantage of ‘down’ time and try to understand yourself a little bit,” Messing counseled. “Give yourself a break.”

When it comes to coping with stress, Psychology Today offers this simple reminder: the choice is always yours.

As stated on Psychology Today’s website, we need to “revel in our gratitude for our bounty, health, hope, and our courage to face each day with hope and determination.”

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