Blog Written by Rebecca Hicks, RN BScN
Chances are if you are living in Canada or a colder climate you’ve heard of or experienced yourself the “Winter Blues”. You might be wondering if this is just a trendy term or
something that is actually diagnosed and treated. Hopefully after reading on you’ll learn some information about this topic and some practical activities and treatments that can help you get through the cold, grey, long, Fall and Winter months!
I’m probably not alone in saying that I too have struggled with low mood and “angst” in the winter months when winter seems to drag on. After the “high” of Christmas and New Year there seems to be a big gap between those holidays and Spring. A big, grey, snowy, gloomy, COLD gap! To solve this problem, some people will plan a nice warm vacation somewhere South. But for those of us who cannot afford this luxury, or are not able to travel, we have to stay put and are left with the wet, cold, snow!
For starters, the Winter Blues can be a diagnosable condition. It is most commonly called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the mental health community. The following information I’ve summarized from the camh website (www.camh.ca) which you can check out for lots of valuable information about a number of mental health conditions, treatments, etc. It’s important to note that like most medical and mental health conditions, there is a spectrum of symptoms and severities. Some people may have most or all the symptoms below in great severity, whereas others might identify with some of these symptoms, some of the time.
What is it?
SAD is a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year. It usually happens in the Fall or Winter, but it can happen in other seasons as well. Similarly to clinical depression, SAD is diagnosed when someone is experiencing a sad, despairing mood most days, lasting for more than two weeks, and when it impairs the person’s functioning at work, school, or in their relationships. Common symptoms can include feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities that you usually enjoy, fatigue, insomnia or oversleeping, weight gain or weight loss, poor concentration, withdrawing from family and friends, thoughts of suicide, and an overall feeling of sadness.
What causes SAD?
It may seem obvious, but as I hinted at earlier, SAD seems to effect people living either far North or far South of the equator. It may be due to the changes in light during the winter months and its impact on a person’s sleep-wake patterns. Another theory is that the changes in light (aka less sunny days where we expose our skin to the sun) can disturb our neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are substances in the brain (such as serotonin and dopamine) that transport nerve impulses in the brain. Put simply, the lack of sun may be causing our brain to not function the way it was intended to!
What can we do about it?
There are several options for treating SAD. Like most mental health conditions, it usually takes a number of life style changes in conjunction with therapy or medication to make the greatest impact.
Light therapy is the main treatment for SAD. It’s basically a box that emits ultraviolet light. It works by sitting near the light box (there’s a specific distance depending on the lightbox you purchase) for a set amount of minutes every day during the Fall and Winter seasons. These light boxes can be purchased online, at drugstores, or at other retail stores. It’s important to do your research first before purchasing as the lux (measurement of light) from each box can be different. Like most treatments there are side effects so it’s important to talk to your primary care provider to ensure light therapy is right for you and won’t interact with any medications or isn’t contraindicated with any pre-existing medical conditions that you may have.
Other options for treating SAD can include medications (usually antidepressants), therapy (counseling), and brain intervention therapies (such as electroconvulsive therapy [ECT], repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation [rTMS], or magnetic seizure therapy [MST]).
Spending time outdoors and increasing exercise can also help treat the symptoms of SAD. Outdoor activities might include walking, running, cross country skiing, snow-shoeing, skiing, and hiking. Have you ever walked in the winter? It can be beautiful! But I suggest making sure you have the appropriate footgear and warm clothing; it will make it much more enjoyable and safer!
If you aren’t willing or able to do outdoor winter activities there are also indoor activities available in most cities. Besides joining a gym or exercise class, you could choose to walk around an indoor mall and see how many laps you can do, or some communities have free walking tracks around their arenas. Another option is to join a recreational sport league for the winter months. Most communities have a variety of sport leagues available for all ages. Not only will you work up a sweat but you’ll also get a chance to make new friends (social interaction is also great for boosting your mood)!
Another intervention that does not get talked about too often is the act of giving. Research has shown that when we give our time, treasure, and talents to those who need it, chemicals are released in the brain that are responsible for making us feel good (back to those neurotransmitters!). So not only are we helping someone in need but we are also helping ourselves! So go ahead, coach that children’s hockey team, volunteer at your local church, shelter, or library. Donate things in your home that you no longer use. Your home will be less cluttered and you may make a difference in someone else’s life. Win-win!
As previously mentioned, it usually takes a number of interventions to treat most mental health conditions, and every person is different in what works for them. Some people can simply increase their physical activity and feel better, but others may need more intensive treatment. The good thing is that there are lots of options available! If you are struggling with any of the symptoms discussed in this blog please discuss your concerns with your primary care provider. Please don’t suffer any longer. And if your first discussion doesn’t go well seek another opinion!
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog today. I genuinely hope that wherever you are, you are doing well and enjoying life. My prayer is that you will find happiness even in the dead of winter.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days, and years.” Genesis 1:14
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16
*If you are not sure you need professional help or not, please reach out to your primary care physician, nurse practitioner, psychiatrist or therapist, who can assess you and point you in the right direction for treatment or coping strategies. Like all of the blogs written for Agora Network Ministries, the information provided is meant to educate and empower our readers. It is not meant to diagnose or treat our readers. *