Written by: Ingrid Herrera-Yee, PhD, a clinical and research psychologist and military spouse
For many of us, the harbingers of winter are welcome. We look forward to the holidays, to the snow covered ground, sitting by a warm fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa, full of good cheer throughout the season and beyond; of course except when you have to shovel all of that good cheer off your driveways and sidewalks! But, for the most part, the winter season doesn’t bring any unnecessary strife beyond thoughts of visiting family, making holiday meals, and dealing with colder temperatures and fixing our favorite comfort foods.
Yet, for some, this is a difficult time. Sadness can overcome you as you start to watch the autumn leaves fall and winter approach. You feel as if your energy is sapped, you feel “moody”, sad, and unable to accomplish things. You are in a funk. You’re fine for the most part all year, but now that winter is here, you don’t feel quite like yourself. You find yourself longing for beaches, warm sun and barbecues with friends and family. We’ve all been there, feeling sort of “blah” and dreading putting on our big, bulky coats and jackets, bracing for that bitter cold that hits us like an arctic blast as we head out the door. The days have been shorter, and we barely see the sun. We feel tired, unmotivated, we just want the long winter to end already. We want to sleep more. We want to eat more. Sound familiar? You may be experiencing the winter blues.
Knowing someone who suffers from the winter blues is not uncommon; statistics show that a half a million people suffer from the winter blues each year. Three-quarters of sufferers are women, and this illness is much more commonly seen in people who live in cloudy regions or at high altitudes. At the heart of this, researchers say, is the lack of sufficient sunlight. One theory is that with decreased exposure to sunlight, the biological clock that regulates mood, sleep, and hormones is adversely affected. Another theory is that brain chemicals that transmit information between nerves may be altered. But we don’t need all the science and statistics to tell us that. We all know of someone, maybe even ourselves, who suffers through a visible change of mood as soon as the colder weather hits.
A case in point, is Mara* a patient of mine who suffered from the winter blues. She was just not quite herself in the winter months. She often felt moody, irritable, and didn’t find as much joy in some of the activities she once was able to enjoy. She felt tired. She felt unmotivated. However, she was still functioning, going to work, school, tending to her obligations, and spending time with friends and family. It was hard for her, but she was able to cope. She had a solid case of the winter blues, and was able to use strategies like increasing her time outdoors in sunlight, and spending more time exercising and interacting with others to better deal with her feelings and emotions. This was enough for her to feel better and to cope with the occasional drops in her mood.
On the other hand, there was my patient Jess*. She would come in as the winter season started, reporting that she felt zero motivation to work, attend school or even spend time with her husband and children. She didn’t tend to her hygiene quite as well; she missed work, cancelled numerous holiday activities, and found herself tearful, irritable, and extremely tired. She slept all the time, and began to over eat and gain weight. This made her feel worse, and the cycle continued. She would become more and more depressed. Still, once those sunnier and longer days were visible in the horizon, her mood and level of activity began to markedly improve. She had the more advanced case of the winter blues known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD’s. You can see from Mara* and Jess* that they both experienced sadness, fatigue, irritability and lack of motivation. The difference between the two is in their level of distress and how much their day to day lives were adversely affected by their mood. Jess* had a much more difficult time coping. Mara* was much more able to cope once given the tools to do so.
So what is the difference between the “winter blues” and SAD’s? The winter blues are a milder form of SAD’s. You feel some of the symptoms, but your life isn’t significantly affected.
If you feel that you are experiencing any combination of the following symptoms you could have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD’s):
- Symptoms of sadness, feeling down, empty feeling, feeling depressed more often than not
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Increased irritability/anger
- Marked loss of interest in usual activities
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Inability to concentrate
- Extreme fatigue and loss of energy
- Increased need for sleep
- Craving for carbohydrates, sweets and accompanying weight gain
- The above symptoms are present in the winter months and tend to dissipate and improve once the winter months are ending
It’s important that you seek the advice of a mental health professional to know for sure; but even if it’s just occasional winter blues, there are things that you can start to do today to feel better, here are some tips:
- Use a light box, or spend more time outdoors in the sunlight. Even if it’s not sunny out, the effects of daylight have been found to be helpful in improving mood, sleep and it boosts your immune system, which is an added bonus.
- Eat a well-balanced diet, try not to indulge in starchy or sweet foods, replace these with fruits and vegetables whenever possible; eating a heart healthy diet, high in fiber and low in saturated fat is a great place to start to boost your mood. Foods rich in vitamin B12 and Folic Acid also appear to have mood boosting benefits.
- Exercise at least 3 times a week, the increased activity boosts your mood as exercise releases chemicals that induce feelings of well-being, such as endorphins.
- Stay involved in regular activities, spend time with friends, join social groups, stay active; studies show that the more involved with others and the more active a person is, the happier they are in the long run.
- Consider talking to a mental health professional, they can give you tips and tricks to help you battle the winter blues
- If symptoms persist or worsen, talk to your doctor about antidepressant medication, sometimes these can benefit you in the short-term to stabilize your mood, thus increasing your ability to cope.
The bottom line on the winter blues or SAD’s is that if you feel that your mood is starting to affect your life in a negative way, talk to someone. Seek the help of your health practitioner or a mental health professional. You are not alone, the winter blues are real. The effects are real. If your symptoms become severe and you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, call your doctor right away or go to the nearest emergency room. Don’t let the name “winter blues” fool you, it can really affect your life. Seek professional help so that you can better treat your symptoms and receive a proper diagnosis.
*names have been changed for confidentiality reasons.
Editors Note: To seek mental health services, please contact your Primary Care Manager, Tricare, or Military One Source. Mental health services are provided as a part of your medical insurance with Tricare and we encourage you to seek out the help of a professional if you are experiencing these symptoms. If you feel that you, or someone you know is having a mental health crisis (suicidal thoughts/behaviors, actions or words indicating possible danger to someone else) please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) or call 9-1-1.