‘Tis the Season

With winter returning and hours of sunlight on the decline, Dale Decker offers some advice on how to cope through seasonal depression.

With winter returning and hours of sunlight on the decline, Dale Decker offers some advice on how to cope through seasonal depression.

Now that fall is coming to an end, with temperatures falling and the sun showing its face less and less, many people are feeling the winter blues. The bulky clothing, lack of exercise, and cold weather are enough to frustrate even the most hearty Wisconsinite. Some people struggle more than others, and science is only just beginning to explore the effect of seasons on mood.

Location certainly plays a role in the winter blues. About 10 percent of people in the northern latitudes of the U.S. will have some winter blues and 1-2 percent of those will have severe symptoms. Genetics appear to play a role as well­—you are at higher risk if a family member has seasonal depression.

The most common complaints with seasonal mood changes are:

• Depressed or blue mood
• Increased appetite
• Craving starchy or sugary foods
• Weight gain
• Loss of energy
• Increased desire to sleep
• Difficulty concentrating
• Social withdrawal

The jury is still out on what causes seasonal depression, but there are some good leads. Sunlight helps balance the daily hormonal changes in the body, and less sunlight makes it harder for your body to know when it should be awake or asleep. The farther you live from the equator, the less sunlight you will get during winter months and thus have more potential for seasonal mood changes. Moving to the tropics is not feasible for most of us, but there are some very practical things you can do to make fall and winter more pleasant. Try these strategies if your seasonal blues are mild:

• Get outside into the sunlight daily
• Open your blinds and turn on lights in your home
• Exercise at least three times per week
• Avoid long naps
• Get out of bed at the same time each day
• Limit starchy or sugary foods
• Keep socially active

If your seasonal mood swings are causing problems with relationships or work, seek professional assistance. Don’t wait for things to get worse because seasonal symptoms appear to resolve more quickly and are less severe if treated early. A medical professional can also help rule out some disorders that can mimic depression, such as low thyroid levels, low blood sugar and viral infections. Here is an overview of treatments that a medical professional can recommend:

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light source each day. Many people find this strategy appealing because it does not involve taking medications and has only a few possible side effects, including eye strain and difficulty sleeping if used too close to bedtime. Most of these side effects subside as your body becomes acclimated to the light. The most frequent barrier to success with light therapy is the time commitment. It takes discipline and planning to spend 30 to 60 minutes sitting in one location every day.

Medications are another option. On the positive side, medications are easy to use and effective. The potential for side effects increases, but, just like light therapy, most people find the bothersome side effects quickly decrease to tolerable levels.

Counseling can help you identify the behaviors and thoughts that increase the winter blues. This type of counseling is very practical and focuses on removing barriers to healthy habits and examining negative thinking. Counseling requires a time commitment but has the advantage of having no side effects.

Taking a vacation to a warm and sunny location in the winter can give you the boost you need to make it through to spring. While this is an expensive option, it certainly is the most fun! However, it is difficult to schedule the vacation at the correct time because the onset of seasonal mood problems can change from year to year.