Many of us look forward to winter, for its beauty, and opportunities to enjoy winter sports. Many of us dread the coming of winter because of the increased darkness, cold temperatures, and many risks associated with the snow and ice.
Our responses to winter include emotional, behavioral, and physical changes. We may experience various symptoms of the “winter blues,” everything from a slight change in sleep and eating patterns, to a full-blown depression.
Seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) is a recurring depression that is brought on by the seasonal changes. The most common form of SAD begins with the decrease in daylight during the late fall and winter months, and goes away as the spring light increases. SAD symptoms may include:
- Increased desire for sleep and carbohydrates
- Loss of energy
- Difficulty focusing
- Interpersonal difficulties
Not surprisingly, SAD can have a significant and negative impact on one’s functioning at work and at home.
“Winter blues” are a milder form of seasonal depression. They may have some similar symptoms to SAD, but resolve more quickly. They may be related to a specific trigger, such as the holidays.
Here’s a list of factors that contribute to the onset of symptoms:
- Loss (of pleasurable activities, spontaneity, flowers, birds, warmth, light, etc.)
- Risks to safety (snow, ice, storms, etc.)
- Extended darkness
- Negative Expectations
- Absence of color
- More time indoors
- Serotonin decrease/Melatonin increase (hormones related to positive mood and sleep)
- Decrease in Vitamin D
- Predisposition to depression
How can we survive and thrive in the face of these challenges?
For starters, let’s take two of the factors listed above and brainstorm some ways to offset or counteract them:
- Respect and honor your feelings of loss; talk with a trusted friend or counselor
- Develop new winter rituals and hobbies
- Start something “alive” in your house: a window box, some herbs, a fish tank, etc.
- Mix up routines, plan surprises for yourself and others; do something out of the ordinary
- Keep your shades open as much as possible during the day
- Get outside in the midday sun (Bundle up and enjoy! Take a friend!)
- Sit by the window and read, or do a craft, instead of watching TV or computer
- Try full spectrum lights in some of your fixtures at home
- Talk to your health care provider about Light Therapy
What are some ideas you can come up with to lessen the difficulties of winter? Following the examples above, take one or two factors and brainstorm some strategies. Or try the ones already listed, and see how they work for you.
Over the next several months we will post additional information about SAD and winter blues, different treatment approaches, and ways in which you can anticipate and reduce the negative effects of winter on yourself and your family. Hopefully, you will also discover some new ways to really enjoy winter!
Linda Patterson, LICSW, is a counselor in the Employee and Family Assistance Program at the University of Vermont Medical Center.