Do the fall leaves and the first chilly days make you want to crawl under a quilt and stay there until spring?
Do you tend to feel down, irritable and tired during the winter months?
Do projects you started in August slow to a halt if you haven’t finished them by October?
Nodding your head with familiarity at any or all of the above means you may be one of the millions of people in the world who suffer from the winter blues, or in Psychological jargon, Seasonal Affective Disorder.
This is a pattern of depression that comes and goes in synch with the yearly cycle of shifting daylight and changing temperatures. Setting our clocks back can be a trigger for some people that winter is coming and leaving work at 5 p.m. with it getting dark outside is certainly depressing.
What should you do if this is happening to you?
As with anything else, being aware is the first step. Being aware that your mood, mental focus, energy, and sense of well-being seem to drastically decrease when the days get short is half the battle.
Preparation is next. Think about the events that may cause stress during the winter months that you are better able to follow through on during the sunny months. It may be best to tackle these during the sunny months so as to not allow yourself to feel defeated and be upset with yourself for not being able to complete such tasks.
For example, volunteering for school events for your kids. Volunteering may be best in August, September, and October when you are feeling energized and at your best as opposed to November, December and January when you know you feel tired and unmotivated.
Trying not to make as many commitments during the months that you struggle with being at your best is a boundary, not a cop-out. Some people may say you should make commitments during these months in order to continue to make yourself do things despite how you feel. My opinion is don’t set yourself up for failure that will just make you feel worse; allow yourself the permission and freedom to limit your expectations in the five months that you struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
In addition to the days becoming shorter and being less sunny, these months have holidays that can be depressing for some individuals. Thanksgiving and Christmas are not always joyous occasions for everyone. Having to be with family or the lack of family can both cause anxiety and depression. It is important for people to be understanding if an individual is not as excited for the holidays as we may expect them to be. We tend to label these people as “scrooges.” We need to remember that holidays can be sad for some people.
What can people do during the months of the winter blues?
Light therapy has been found to be helpful for approximately 60-80% of people struggling with seasonal affective disorder. People can use light boxes in which they sit in front of for a period of time every morning. These light boxes shine light much brighter than ordinary indoor lighting.
People can also use light therapy bulbs that can replace regular light bulbs in their home during these months which assist in providing more natural light. Fluorescent bulbs seem to be the best because these bulbs spread out the light maximally, while incandescent bulbs emit intense light from a small source, which could damage your eyes if stared at directly. Taking care of yourself by doing things you enjoy can help with the mood changes and sadness.
Exercise is a great source of treating sadness and depression.
Making good decisions with food is important as people with seasonal affective disorder have tendencies to store up on carbs and increase their weight during the winter months.
If such sadness interferes to a significant degree in your life during these months, talking to your Doctor is a must.
It is true that the emotions experienced with Seasonal Affective Disorder go away on their own, however, that could be up to 5 months in duration or longer.
Five months every year is a long time to not feel good. Being aware of it can help. Preparing for it can help. Talking about it can help. Accepting it can help. Understanding it can help.
Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.