This time of year, with gray skies clouding our days and temperatures keeping us indoors (in many places), it is not surprising that many report feeling blue. In fact, depression with a seasonal pattern has long been recognized as affecting many during the winter months. 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 estimates of incidence is 6%-9.6% in the general population, many more individuals are affected by subclinical levels, or seasonal blues.
What is seasonal depression?
Those affected by seasonal depression frequently feel sad or depressed, experience decreased interest in activities, energy, ability to concentrate, and frequently also experience changes in appetite and sleep (usually eating and sleeping more). Some individuals also report thoughts of suicide. The rate of seasonal depression is notably higher in geographic areas further form the equator where there are fewer winter daylight hours. Seasonal depression is triggered by seasonal changes (e.g. less sunlight, shorter daylight) which lead to a biochemical imbalance in the brain. As people are exposed to less daylight, some people experience a shift in their internal circadian rhythm (our internal clock) that affect how they respond to their daily demands.
What can you do about it?
Winter blues and seasonal depression, fortunately, can be effectively managed. It will, like most things, require effort. It will require you to take action. In a sense, it will require activation. Activation changes the course of 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 of how to “activate”:
Find the light:
Many people are sensitive to the effects of reduced 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. 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.
Additionally, seeking out mimicked daylight is something to consider. For many, regularly using a light box, which is an artificial light used therapeutically and specifically created for those experiencing seasonal depression, has a pronounced effect on their seasonal depression. Many options currently exist, and are readily available for purchase.
Make a commitment to yourself:
Commit to yourself to stay active and engaged. Attend a talk on a topic that interests you. Go to the gym. Try a new class while at the gym or attend a class you haven’t been to in many seasons but had enjoyed in the past. 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 snow shoes, 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 for a longer range activity. For example, this could be a great time to plan for a vacation down the road. Where would you like to go? Can you imagine yourself there and what it might feel like to be there? 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, get off the couch and meet a friend for coffee or an evening out. You may be less likely to let others down if you make a commitment to someone else. This idea leads into 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. Likely, others you know are feeling the same way. Reaching out to others can be a fantastic thing to do, both for others 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 making a commitment 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.
Other ways to beat seasonal depression:
Psychotherapy in its multiple forms also can be a useful option for beating depressive feelings and thoughts any time of year, but especially in the winter months. In fact, many of the suggestions provided in this article draw from behavioral principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Many of the same benefits can also be achieved from reading inspirational or self-help books, journaling, or doing mindfulness or visualization exercises on your own, Antidepressants can be effective too, depending on the nature and severity of symptoms, but in many cases it may be more prudent to first try strategies described above. Whichever strategies you try, now is the time to take action!