How to Battle the Winter Blues

By Morris Cohen on February 5, 2013 7:15am 

 Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can manifest as lethargy, depression, and other behaviors.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can manifest as lethargy, depression, and other behaviors.
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NEW YORK — A few weeks ago on a cloudy, damp, cold morning, a client of mine came in complaining that she couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

Outside, the skies were gray and a wintry mix of rain, sleet and light snow fell onto the streets below. She said she felt heavy, complained of a lack of motivation, and even experienced mild depression.

For many individuals, the onset of winter's limited hours of sunlight, cold temperatures and seemingly endless stretch of frigid weather result in what some people call the “winter blues,” with that dragging feeling, that heaviness upon waking, and a tamped down energy level that feels like mild depression.

But for some people, the sensation that comes with the change of seasons everywhere but sunny places in the southern hemisphere is not only annoying, it can be a serious condition that can interfere with our social/emotional functioning.

The condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. The difference between SAD and the winter blues depends on duration and intensity of any of the following symptoms:

♦  Hopelessness
♦  Anxiety
♦  Loss of energy
♦  Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs
♦  Social withdrawal
♦  Oversleeping
♦  Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
♦  Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
♦  Weight gain
♦  Difficulty concentrating

Many of us occasionally experience some of these symptoms during the winter months. However, if you are experiencing many or all of those symptoms, most days of the week, then you should check with your physician or a mental health professional to see if you are suffering from SAD.

Treatments vary depending on the circumstances and physical and emotional history of the individual. However, there are few things you can do to mitigate the feelings even if you can't pack up and move to the Bahamas.

Get Your Vitamin D

Low levels of vitamin D, which your body naturally makes with exposure to the sun, are associated with depression, scientific studies have found.

If it's overcast, stormy or snowing, and your body has a harder time producing vitamin D, you may have a harder time fighting off the effects of depression. The solution: even on sunny winter days, try to get outside for at least 15 minutes. Having the sun hit your face for 15 to 30 minutes can make a huge difference in the vitamin D production and help you ease depression related to the season.

If you are having a hard time getting enough sun, or the weather prevents direct sun exposure, supplement with vitamin D orally. Vitamin D is available at most drugstores and health food stores. While there's debate over the appropriate dosage — it ranges from 1,000 milligrams to 10,000 a day, in some cases of extreme deprivation — I suggest working with your trusted health professional to find the safe dosage based on your vitamin D levels.

Use a Light Box

One of the treatments for those suffering from SAD is light therapy: the use of light boxes emitting full-spectrum light similar in composition to sunlight.  The technology helps you make up the lost sunlight of the season with treatments of between 15 and 45 minutes per day.

There are many light boxes to choose from. I personally use a blue light emitter, and have begun recommending them to my clients who have signs of depression or SAD. Some people have even found that light therapy gives them so much energy in the morning that they no longer need to drink coffee to wake up.

Maintain, Resume or Return to Exercise

When that arctic blast hits, we have a natural tendency to hibernate. A day of hiding out from the cold can be healthy, but when we hibernate for days at a time, it can take a toll on our well being. Maintaining a normal exercise routine can help override the desire to hide under a blanket and sleep the season away.

Aerobic exercise has been proven to be effective at keeping depression and anxiety at bay. Get to the gym, or better yet, go for a cold weather hike, or try one of my favorite activities — a winter walk on the beach. The rush of endorphins and blood flow can trick your body into thinking it's 72 degrees and sunny outside, even when the mercury says otherwise.

Embrace Winter Play

During this latest cold snap, some of us may be dreaming of a winter vacation, or willing spring to return. Warm weather fantasies are great, but don’t miss out the magic of winter.

Making the most of winter activities can be a big mood booster. Remember that feeling when you were a kid and there was a snow day? Try a day of chucking snowballs and rolling up giant snowmen, or sledding down Sheep's Meadow. Playing like a kid again can lighten our moods. Take a walk in the park, and think of all the fun activities, such as skiing or ice skating, that only exist during the colder months.

While there are bound to be winter days when we are going to feel more lethargic than others, this doesn’t mean it has to last a whole season.

Morris Cohen is a clinical social worker, licensed by the state of New York, and maintains a private psychotherapy and consultation practice in Midtown Manhattan.  You can visit his website at morriscohenlcsw.com.

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