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The Truth Behind the Winter Blues, and What You Can Do About It

October arrived, and with it, the shorter days, the cooler weather, and for me, a touch of the winter blues.  It happens every year, like a light switch going off.  One day there’s just a touch of chill to the breeze from the north, and the next it’s sweater weather and I can’t stop drinking tea and thinking of a hot bath.

The sun sets on September, 2015.

The sun sets on September, 2015.

This year, it happened with the calendar.  The last day of September we were on the boat, watching the sunset from the sandbar.  And the next day, there was a biting chill to the wind that arrived with torrential downpours.  I remembered why it’s sometimes hard work to get outside.  I remembered why there are days when I feel like bundling into my sweatpants and staying next to the wood stove all day long.  I remembered the chill that settles into my back, clenching my shoulder blades together into an unconscious knot that lasts until I slide into bed, snuggled deep under the down comforter.

How can we not miss summer when it's filled with moments like this?

How can we not miss summer when it’s filled with moments like this?

I know it sounds dramatic for the slightest of seasonal shifts, but I think it’s also anticipatory.  There won’t be another summer for eight months.  There will be no long, bright days where the sun beats down on the sand and burns our tender feet, hurrying us along into the lapping ocean waves.  There won’t be lazy days where inside blends into outside, windows open and kids running through open doors without putting on jackets or shoes.  It’s only fall, but winter is coming and we can feel it.  There is a heaviness settling over me with the knowledge that it’s almost here.

For millions of people, this happens every year in varying degrees.  For some, like me, it’s a gentle heaviness that weighs on my days, making everything just a little darker and a little harder.  For others, it’s incapacitating.

There’s a name for these so-called winter blues.

IMG_6623Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to appropriately as SAD, is a type of depression that occurs seasonally, most commonly onsetting in late fall or early winter, and resolving by summer (though there are varieties that occur primarily in the summer as well).  The American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that 4 to 6 percent of people suffer from winter depression, with another 10 to 20 percent exhibiting milder symptoms of SAD.  It’s more common in women than men, and it’s more common the further you are from the equator.

SAD does not present the same in everyone, but some common symptoms include:

  • Decrease in energy levels
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain and/or changes in appetite, especially craving starchy or sweet foods
  • Irritability
  • Sensitivity
  • Avoidance of social interactions (eg not wanting to go out)
  • Changes in sleeping patterns

If you have noticed some of the above symptoms and feel that they are seasonal in nature, you may want to talk to your doctor about your concerns.  He or she might prescribe phototherapy, which involves the use of bright lights to help reset your circadian rhythms. In more extreme cases, medication or behavioral therapy may be needed.

But, there’s good news too. While there is no substitute for a doctor’s care, the easiest way to treat mild SAD symptoms is also the least expensive and most effective.

A morning walk without the kids to get my day started.

A cloudy morning walk without the kids to get my day started.

Most doctors agree that winter depression is at least partly caused by a lack of sunlight which affects your natural circadian rhythm and melatonin production.  As such, light therapy is the most commonly prescribed treatment for SAD, exposing individuals to a light box which produces light far brighter than a normally lit room.

Getting outside more can be a suitable substitute for mild symptoms, as reported by many doctors.  Mental Health America reports that one study found an hour long walk in the winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours of exposure to bright artificial lights.

A little nature therapy to keep us energized and happy.

A little nature therapy to keep us energized and happy.

Personally, I find that getting outside in the morning and feeling the sun on my face can recharge me for the day ahead, no matter the temperature of the air. Even on a cloudy day, the sun produces light approximately 10 times stronger than the average indoor lighting.

Do you notice a change in your mood as the seasons change?  Do you feel sluggish or tired as the sun rises later and sets earlier?  You can do something about it.  It’s just another reason to get outside on a daily basis!

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1 Comment

  1. Molly

    The gray , overcast, low-ceiling clouds have set in here…SAD for sure but you inspire me Kate (to try) to get outside. Merci -:)

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