Winter blahs or seasonal affective disorder? Ways to boost your mood this season

Eric Zelz
Posted Dec. 16, 2013, at 3:06 p.m.

As the daylight hours wane this winter, many Mainers find their moods darkening too.

Some call it the “winter blues.” Clinicians call it seasonal affective disorder. Either way, the feelings of malaise that take hold as the winter months approach can be hard to shake. The effects can be more pronounced at higher latitudes, home to longer winter nights. At Maine’s latitude, an estimated 20 percent of people experience significant seasonal variations, such as irritability and weight gain.

Like other mood disorders, SAD strikes women more often than men.

Symptoms are the same as with other forms of depression, including hopelessness, low energy, difficulty concentrating, tossing and turning at night, and loss of interest in work or other activities. Many SAD sufferers crave foods rich in carbohydrates, an indulgence that often leads to weight gain when paired with the disorder’s typical fatigue and lack of activity.

For some, the symptoms become severe enough to interfere with daily life, leading to a SAD diagnosis.

If feelings of depression ease each year as the days grow longer, it’s likely SAD, according to Amy Cotton, a geriatric nurse practitioner and director of operations at Rosscare, a Bangor senior services organization. If not, an appointment with a health care professional is in order, she said.

“A lot of people start gradually feeling better come February, come March, and that will be the end of it,” she said. “But if folks are not, if they are feeling sad every day, not having restful sleep, feeling tired and not being able to be physically active … it could signal something is wrong if it’s not improving with more daylight.”

Cotton suggested five strategies for beating the winter blues:

1. Increase your exposure to light. “The best light is natural daylight,” she said. But some may also find relief with bright light therapy, in which patients sit in front of a small box that emanates light on the blue-green end of the spectrum, often during the early morning hours, which mimics sunrise. Boosting regular lighting in the home may help, too.

2. Eat well. “The winter months are a great opportunity to seek comfort foods that can be very healthy, things like hearty soups and hearty stews and chili,” Cotton said. Cut back on the desserts, crackers and chips to stave off weight gain. Also avoid too much caffeine, which can prove especially tempting if you’re feeling fatigued from SAD. You may experience withdrawal if you have to skip a cup of java or tea, plus coffee creates stomach acid that can interfere with sleep by contributing to conditions such as acid reflux, Cotton said.

3. Stay active. Lift some light weights while you watch TV, or take a walk. Don’t forget about mental exercise, too. Enjoy hobbies such as reading or crafts, Cotton said.

4. Be social. Reach out to family and friends. Some people, especially older adults, may feel sad or isolated around the holidays.

“It’s not a wonderful time of year for everyone,” Cotton said. “In some cases it can stimulate memories of what used to be that may not be anymore.”

5. Get help. If these tips don’t work, schedule an appointment with your health care professional. Medication or counseling may be needed, or you might be suffering from a medical issue or another mental health condition that needs evaluation and treatment, she said.

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