Does it feel as if spring will never come? Do you feel unusually sad, irritable, moody or anxious? Are you sick of your winter coat, boots, and the rest of the paraphernalia you have to put on day after day to just get to the store, work, or school? That's to say nothing of having to bundle up small children, as well. And that's when you're even able to leave the house! Wind chills of up to 40 degrees below zero and snow that seems never ending, have kept many of us housebound. One of my clients shared a photo of his daughter standing at their front door dressed only in her pajamas, slippers, jacket, and hat, begging to go outside and play when it was 20 below zero! We all have a greater appreciation of why bears go into hibernation for the winter. If we could only go to sleep and wake up in spring!
Whether you experience depression every winter, or this year's unbelievable 'polar vortex' is doing you in, symptoms and their severity vary with each individual, and may include one or more of the following:
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• Sleep problems, including difficulty waking up in the morning, oversleeping, or sleeping too much.
• A lack of energy or fatigue, feeling particularly tired during the daytime.
• Tendency to overeat, especially craving carbohydrates, which leads to weight gain.
• Loss of interest in activities that usually bring pleasure.
• Withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities.
• Diminished ability to concentrate and difficulty completing tasks.
• Decreased sex drive.
• Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism.
• Sluggish movements, body aches, and a decrease in physical activities.
• Sadness and/or crying spells.
The first step is to acknowledge what you are feeling. Give yourself permission to feel this way, and know that it's OK to take time to express your emotions or cry. There are a number of tips in this article that can help you overcome the wintertime blues.
For many, who experience this type of depression year after year, there is actually a name for the way you're feeling, and it's appropriately called "SAD". Seasonal Affective Disorder results from the deprivation of much needed sunlight that occurs as the winter days get shorter. This lack of light may upset your sleep-wake cycle and the 24-hour cycles of physical and mental changes driven by your body's "biological clock", which are known as Circadian rhythms. Things in your environment, especially light, influence these cycles. The lack of light may also cause problems with the brain chemical called serotonin that affects your mood.
If you have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, light therapy (also known as phototherapy) has been found to be one of the easiest and most effective treatments. No longer considered experimental, phototherapy is described in a Task Force Report of the American Psychiatric Association as a mainstream type of treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Light therapy uses a special lamp with a very bright light that mimics light from the sun. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD. Light Boxes are used for approximately 30 minutes a day, usually in the morning. However your doctor can help determine the optimum time of day for you. Most important is the way the lamp is positioned during use. The proper distance and angle from the user is vital for it to be effective. Light boxes, available from stores and Internet retailers, come in different shapes and sizes and have varied features. They also produce different types and intensities of light. Be sure to consult with your doctor so that you get a light therapy box that best suits your needs. Side effects of light therapy may include eyestrain or headaches. It's important not to look directly into the light source. People, who take medications that make them more sensitive to light, should not use light therapy. Make sure to check with your physician prior to beginning treatment.
Phototherapy may be effective on its own, or even more effective when combined with another SAD treatment, such as counseling or medication. Psychological counseling can help you learn more about this disorder and how to manage your symptoms. In more severe cases of depression, medication can improve the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood.
Whether you have SAD or are just depressed from this never-ending winter, the following are ways to help you overcome the wintertime blues.
Eat Healthy Foods - What you eat has a great affect on your mood and energy. Avoid refined and processed foods such as white breads, rice, and sugar. These foods are not only devoid of the nutrients your body craves, but they zap your energy levels and can affect your mood--causing depression, lack of concentration, and mood swings. Try to incorporate more complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat breads, brown rice, fruit, and vegetables. These healthy foods provide your body and mind with nutrients, and stabilize your blood sugar and your energy levels. Remember to drink plenty of water!
Exercise - Exercise isn't only for maintaining your weight and staying healthy. It's a great stress reliever. The effects of a good workout will give you more energy throughout the day. Exercise also helps your mind by releasing those "feel good chemicals" that improve your mood. Walking at a good pace can produce the same effects as a workout. So, if you can't join a gym, go for long walks inside a shopping mall. You'd be surprised how many 'mall walkers' are out there!
Turn Up the Light -- Aside from using the light box previously discussed, there are other ways to produce more light exposure. Try changing the light bulbs in your house to "full spectrum" bulbs. These mimic natural light and actually have the same affects on your mind as the real thing. And keep those lights on! Also, keep your shades up during the day to let in as much light as possible. When you're at work, school, or restaurants, try to sit near a window.
Wear Bright Colors -- People tend to wear dark colors during the winter months, saving the bright, sunny colors for spring and summer. Dig those clothes out of the closet now! They won't improve the weather outside, but wearing them will improve your attitude and outlook.
Connect With Family and Friends - Reach out to others for support. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious, or other social events. If you can't get out, in our world of technology today there are online communities and support groups just a click away!
Volunteer - This is a great time to volunteer your time and help others. Giving of yourself will lift your spirits, and create connections.
Plan Activities That Make You Happy -- Maybe it's a weekend getaway, a day at the spa, movie night, or special events such as a play, concert, or sporting event. A trip to a botanic garden or indoor water park will help you forget about winter, if only for a few hours. There are also fun winter activities such as cross-country or downhill skiing, ice-skating, and sledding. If the weather is keeping you in -- how about a family game night, a special movie night complete with popcorn, or a gathering of neighbors and friends?
Make a Pot of Soup or a Crockpot of Healthy Chili -- Staying in the 'healthy foods' category, nothing feels and smells more comforting than a pot of soup simmering on the stove. Your home will feel warmer and cozier!
Take Up a New Indoor Hobby - Start a Remodeling Project - Organize Your Home -- There's no time like winter to start a home project, like decluttering the house or purging all the old clothes in your closets.
Light Some Candles and the Fireplace (if you have one) -- Turn on the Music -- Read a Great Book -- Take this time to truly enjoy the comforts of your home.
Plan a Vacation -- If you have the resources and time to get away to a warm, sunny location -- go! A break from winter will definitely help your mood and make the remaining months go by quicker. If you can't get away yet, maybe you can plan for a trip this summer. Just working on an itinerary and looking at travel brochures will make you feel hopeful, positive, and put your mind in another place.
Avoid Alcohol and Recreational Drugs - These can make depression worse. Alcohol and many recreational drugs are actually depressants, and rather than improving your mood, they only makes it worse.
Relax -- Remember to breath, and make time for yourself! This is probably the most important tip to overcoming the wintertime blues. When your feeling depressed or irritable, take time to quiet your mind, slow your breathing, and restore inner calm. Spend at least 15 minutes alone, without distractions. Close your eyes, take several deep breaths, and relax. Imagine yourself in a beautiful warm place, perhaps a scene of nature. Visualize yourself feeling peaceful, or succeeding at a cherished goal. Take a warm bath. Keep a gratitude journal. Listen to soothing music. Relaxation, especially in the form of yoga, can alleviate stress and leave you with a calm energy.
If despite your best efforts, you find that symptoms of despair and hopelessness still persist or are getting worse, it's important to seek professional help.
Remember the best cure for the wintertime blues is just around the corner -- SPRING!
Fonda Lewis is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and National Certified Counselor with Personal Growth Associates with offices in Schaumburg and Crystal Lake. She can be reached at (847) 413-9700 x336 or (847) 975-6294.