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Taking Control of Seasonal Blues

By Dr. Marni Amsellem, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

When caught up in the seemingly endless dark and bitterly cold winter days, it’s not uncommon to notice the impact of the weather on our overall mood, motivation, and energy. Experiencing low mood in the cold dark months of the year has long been recognized as a real phenomenon affecting many. This pattern had, for many years, been known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but now is considered, for diagnostic purposes, to be a variant of major depressive disorder, known as depression with a seasonal pattern. While rates have been estimated to be just under 10% in the general population, many more individuals are affected by subclinical levels or seasonal blues.

HOW DO I KNOW IF IT’S SEASONAL DEPRESSION?

Seasonal depression is triggered by seasonal changes (e.g., less sunlight, shorter daylight), which leads to a biochemical imbalance in the brain. As people are exposed to less daylight, some experience a shift in their internal circadian rhythm (our internal clock) that affect how they respond to their daily demands. If it’s seasonal depression, several telltale signs include feeling sad or depressed, experiencing decreased interest in activities, energy, and the ability to concentrate, and also sometimes experiencing changes in appetite and sleep (usually eating and sleeping more). Some individuals also have some suicidal thoughts. Unsurprisingly, the rate of seasonal depression is greater when there are fewer winter daylight hours.

HOW CAN I MANAGE SEASONAL BLUES?

A friend posted a related question on social media:

How are you all managing your winter blues?

Further noting, “It’s very real and getting worse each year

A timely post, indeed. Many “liked” or replied to this post, chiming in to commiserate or to offer suggestions. I’ll offer several tips as well, as winter blues and seasonal depression can be effectively managed. Managing seasonal blues requires you to take action and ownership of your mental health.

When you take action, it shakes up the inertia that often sets in this time of year. This, in turn, sets off a chain reaction in us and can help break us out of the cloud of “winter doldrums” as well as a full-blown depression with a seasonal pattern. Here are some suggestions on how to “activate”:

Find the light:

During the winter months, many people notice they become sensitive to the effects of less exposure to daylight. To counter this, you’ll have to seek out opportunities for daylight. Make sure blinds are open while inside during daylight, and seek the outdoors regularly, particularly early in the day. The dose of sunshine can become an instant boost. The list of reasons we can come up with to talk ourselves into staying inside is long, but the benefits of stepping outside can be significant. Benefits include improved overall stress management and well-being in addition to reducing seasonal depression symptoms.

Similarly, many find benefit in artificial daylight. Regularly using a lightbox, which is an artificial light used therapeutically and specifically created for those experiencing seasonal depression, has a pronounced effect on seasonal depression for many of those affected. Many options currently exist and are readily available for purchase.

Make a commitment to yourself:

Commit to yourself to stay active and engaged. Watch a virtual talk or listen to a podcast on a topic that interests you. If going to the gym isn’t an option, try a new online fitness class. Whatever it is that sounds engaging, make a date with yourself, and then follow through. Bundle up and take a walk outside in the woods (with snowshoes, if necessary). This suggestion has the added benefit of natural light exposure, as well, of course.

The commitment you make to yourself does not necessarily have to be for today; it can be toward a future-oriented goal. For example, this could be a great time to plan for a vacation you might take down the road. Simply getting in the mindset of vacation-planning can trigger a surge of positive thinking and emotions. This can happen simply by planning and taking a non-routine outing too, such as a day trip.

This may take the form of making a commitment to others in addition to yourself. Accept a social invitation. Even if you don’t feel like it, meet a friend for an online coffee. You may be less likely to let others down if you commit to someone else. This idea leads to the next suggestion.

Reach out to others:

Holiday gatherings may seem like distant memories and the cold often creates a sense of increased isolation, either real or perceived. It is likely that others you know are feeling the same way. Reaching out to others can be a fantastic thing to do, both for them and for yourself.

One way to reach out and to engage with others or with your community is to offer to provide some help, such as volunteering. Generally speaking, volunteering is associated with significant positive mental health effects. Similar to the other advice offered in this article, volunteering involves action. You are doing something. You are committing to a cause bigger than yourself. This action is getting you off the couch and potentially out of a rut. Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and can certainly elicit a great deal of meaning or satisfaction.

Call your therapist:

Psychotherapy (in any of its multiple forms) may be an extremely useful tool for beating depressive feelings and thoughts at any time of year, including the winter months. In fact, many of the suggestions provided in this article draw from the behavioral principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Antidepressants can be effective too, depending on the nature and severity of your symptoms.

Other forms of self-help:

Some of the benefits of therapy can also be achieved from reading inspirational or self-help books, journaling, practicing mindfulness, or visualization exercises on your own. Try something that resonates with you.

Regardless of whichever strategies you try, now is the time to take action!

Dr. Marni Amsellem, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist based in metro NYC and Connecticut specializing in health psychology and helping her clients develop skills to navigate challenges and build resilience. In addition to having a private practice, she is an author and consultant. As a topic expert and researcher, Dr. Amsellem consults with hospitals, organizations, and companies on issues related to behavior change and health psychology. She has authored two books, The Big Idea Journal: A Tool for Facilitating Change and Bringing your Idea to Life and Navigating Relationships in Bipolar Disorder. Additionally, she writes about a variety of mental health, relationship, health, and prevention-focused topics in multiple media outlets (accessible on her website www.smarthealthpsych.com) and on Twitter (@smartpsychreads). More recently, she has launched www.writereflectgrow.com, an online community focused on journaling where she offers journaling-focused online and live workshops, journals (coming soon!), and other resources. Look for Write. Reflect. Grow. on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and stay tuned for announcements.