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Adding Color to the “Winter Blues”

February 2, 2011

By David Beeksma, PhD
Director of Mental Health Services at The Lakes Community Health Center

Changes in our moods are a reality of life. In fact, the only real constant about emotions is that they will change. Change occurs in the frequency, duration, intensity and type of emotions we have. When we experience negative emotions (type) for too long (duration), too often (frequency), and/or too strongly (intensity), it is simply not pleasant for us or for those who live with us.
Often, at this time of year, we speak of having the “Winter Blues” or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to explain our discomfort, our moodiness. There are many factors that can contribute to this “SAD” state of affairs but there are some basic things we have control over that can add some color to our lives in the winter season to lessen the “SAD” impact on us.

Set goals. One way to increase the experience of positive emotions is to make progress toward a goal. Set some small, doable goals and begin to make progress towards them. This gives us a sense of accomplishment and productivity that feels good.
Emotions are contagious. If you want to experience more positive emotions, engage in activities with others that are fun. Before you know it, and often in spite of yourself, you will have a smile on your face. If we spend time with those who are grumpy, we might catch that also.

Pay attention to what you’re thinking. Thoughts and emotional experiences are closely related.  “I hate cold weather” is probably going to contribute to more frequent and more intense negative feelings.  Change “I hate cold weather” To “This cold weather is a bummer, but it will end” or “I can handle this” or “This is nothing, we are a hearty bunch in northern Wisconsin” and see if it changes the intensity, duration, or frequency of negative emotions. Experiment and see what happens.
Manage stress by taking care of yourself. It gets stated over and over again, but it is very true and very powerful. Being physically fit/active, putting good fuel in your body, and getting rest is very important for emotional health. The “take home message” is to take control of your life by choosing thoughts and behaviors that are helpful.

More information about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Sometimes depressive experiences or mood difficulties only happen during certain seasons of the year. This is referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The most common season for SAD is fall/winter with symptoms being relieved in the spring. However, there are some cases of spring/summer SAD.

Fall/Winter SAD begins in the fall and appears to be correlated with the shortened hours of daylight. It is often marked by increased time sleeping, cravings for carbohydrates that often lead to weight gain, a decrease in energy and an increase in the sense of depression. Sufferers may also experience social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating and processing information, and a decreased sex drive.

Summer SAD sufferers tend to report anxiety, insomnia, irritability, weight loss, poor appetite, and increased sex drive. Diagnosing SAD can be difficult because there needs to be an established pattern of having these symptoms seasonably over the course of several years without other psychosocial stressors that can contribute to negative mood states such as unemployment and/or relationship difficulties.

The good news is that SAD can be treated with light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications. Relief from SAD symptoms is also experienced when environments are made brighter and “sunnier”. Getting outside during the day, even if it is cloudy, can be very effective in helping improve moods in the winter. This is most effective when it is done within two hours of daylight in the morning. Other treatments listed above for depression can also be helpful along with alternative activities like Yoga, acupuncture, meditation, guided imagery, and getting a massage.

Whether is it a case of the “Winter Blues,” Seasonal Affective Disorder, or depression, taking action to add some color in your life with any of the suggestions above can brighten up winter. The important message is that mood disorders are treatable. However, if left untreated, they can get worse and may lead to suicidal thoughts, hopelessness, school problems, work problems, social withdrawal, and substance abuse. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek professional help as soon as possible.

This article first ran in The Ashland Daily Press, Health Matters Section on January 29, 2011.

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