How to Beat the “Winter Blues”


Healthy Living – January 10, 2017
Dr. Mark R. Allen – Acadia Hospital
We live in Maine. It’s January. The holidays are over, and now we have to “dig in” to get through the tough part of the year. For some people, this is not an easy task, and they can develop Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is depressed mood with a seasonal pattern that includes having the following experiences for at least the last two years:
  • Depressed mood that BEGINS during a specific season every year and ENDS during a specific season every year
  • No episodes of depressed mood during the season in which you experience a normal mood
  • Many more seasons of depressed mood than seasons without depressed mood over the lifetime of the illness
How can we avoid it?
Here are 10 great ways to not just survive, but to thrive during the winter doldrums:
  1. EXERCISE…for real this time
    1. Extremely helpful to prevent depressed mood
    2. Studies show that exercising 30-40 minutes, five times per week improved symptoms of mild to moderate depression
    3. A daily one-hour walk in the middle of the day can be as helpful as light treatment for coping with the winter blues
2.GET OUTSIDE (and get some Vitamin D from the sun)
  1. Go outdoors in the natural daylight as much as possible
i.Best times are within 2 hours of waking up (hello, internal clock) and especially at midday and on brighter days
  1. A simple change in scenery can change your perspective
  1. 80% effective at reducing SAD symptoms
  2. Sit near it 30 minutes each morning – timing is important as it maintains the internal body clock on its springtime cycle
  3. Put on a desk or table while you eat breakfast or work
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  1. Stream natural light by keeping blinds/curtains totally open during the day and trim those hedges/bushes in the yard
i.Even if you don’t have SAD, this can be helpful
ii.Not a coincidence that we associate darkness with depression
  1. Use bright colors on the wall and light-colored upholstery
  2. Get rid of clutter – a clean environment is a happy one
  1. Cold temperatures may play a role in development of depressive symptoms
  2. Bundle up and aim to keep your home between 64-70 degrees
  3. Some evidence shows that people with higher tolerance to cold tend to be less depressed than those who are more susceptible to cold
  1. Routine, routine, routine
  2. Feeling of accomplishment
  3. Making your bed prevents returning to bed  J
  1. It’s within the norm to gain up to 5-6 pounds over winter, but those with full-blown SAD may gain much more weight than that…
  2. Eating at regular intervals will help you maintain a more positive and stable mood
  3. Focus on healthy, balanced meals with plenty of fruits/vegetables
  4. Take Vitamin D supplements – helpful for mood
  5. Limit caffeine intake – spikes insulin, drops blood sugar, leads to fatigue and dehydration
  1. Provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment during the winter months
  2. Join a tennis league, volunteer at an animal shelter, or start playing bridge – anything that keeps your mind active, is not work-related, and gets you out of the house
  1. Binge watching Netflix, sitting in a bean bag chair and eating Cheetos may sound awesome, but it is NOT the way to get through winter
  2. Force yourself to get out and see friends who will brighten your mood
  3. Spend time with pets – mutually beneficial; just don’t let this be an excuse to become glued to the couch
  1. The act of planning, alone, is helpful as it gives you something to look forward to
  2. Cash in those frequent flyer miles and head South to the beach
i.Fun fact: only about 1% of Floridians develop winter-specific depressed mood versus nearly 50% of those living in the northernmost U.S. or in southern Canada
  • Don’t be a hermit -- stay active, exercise, & be social!
  • Focus on normalizing your internal clock through exposure to light, sticking to a routine, and getting on a good sleep schedule
  • If you experience persistent feelings of sadness, please visit your primary care physician and ask for a referral to a counselor or psychiatrist