The holidays are over; the kids are hopefully not sick and in school, and it’s back to the routine and responsibilities of work and family, in the coldest and darkest time of the year. Thankfully, we are getting closer to spring! Until then, once of the most common complaints I hear will hear in the therapy room over the next several months, is coping with the “winter blues.”
It’s not uncommon for people to feel less motivated or energetic when it’s cold. Add to the mix, shorter days with less sunlight, tired and whiny kids who don’t want to be cooped up inside, and the unexpected virus or flu can take the energy and motivation out of the most spirited person. But feeling unmotivated, irritable, having less energy and less positive emotions may indicate having the winter blues.
Have you ever considered the difference between experiencing the “winter blues” versus a more pervasive mental health issue, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder? I talk about these differences a lot this time of year and thought it would be helpful to share in a post.
The winter blues are a mild loss of energy, activity, and a decrease in experiencing positive emotions. A person who has the winter blues, may eat more, craving carbohydrates, have a decline in regular activity, an increase in sleep, and experience more boredom. Other symptoms of the winter blues can be a desire to isolate from friends and family, irritability and being less active compared to normal activity levels. Winter blues often start in the late fall, when the days are longer, and there is less sunlight. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), if you notice your winter blues have occurred for at least two winters, you might have a Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a particular type of depression that lasts for a season, typically the winter, and goes away once the season changes. The symptoms of SAD quite similar to symptoms of the winter blues, but differ in the intensity, duration and severity of the symptoms. According to the APA, symptoms of SAD include, “fatigue, pervasively sad mood, loss of interest, sleep difficulty or excessive sleeping, craving and eating more starches and sweets, weight gain, feelings of hopelessness or despair and thoughts of suicide.” Compared to the winter blues, symptoms of SAD will be more disruptive and impair a person’s life impacting relationships, work or school functioning and decrease overall well-being.
So what do you do if you think you may have the winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder?
If your symptoms are mild and happen on occasion, add in some of the below suggestions to beat the winter blues. If your symptoms are more problematic and disruptive, reach out to your primary care physician or mental health provider for diagnosis, support and treatment recommendations.
Here are some suggestions to beat the Winter Blues:
1. Get Outside Every Day. Make sure to increase your activity by getting out of the house every day and expose yourself to sunlight, even if it’s for a short amount of time. If you work outside of the home, you have to get out of the house, so consider taking time during your breaks to move around and get outside.
2. Exercise. Staying physically active and exercising is a great way to boost energy, combat the winter blues and reduce symptoms of SAD and depression. Bundle up and go for a walk, head to the gym or exercise class, or go to a local indoor mall for some activity and movement. I often recommended using an app that is a great workout, called the 7-minute workout. It’s quick, energizing and a great portable exercise routine when stuck inside, and you need a boost of activity.
3. Stick to a Sleep Schedule. Adequate sleep creates an essential foundation of mental and physical well-being. First, know how much sleep you need to feel rested and productive. On average, most people require between 7-9 hours of sleep. Next, stick to a bedtime schedule routine to ensure you get the sleep you need. Many people I work with can see dramatic improvement in mental health and energy by getting enough sleep.
4. Eat Healthy Foods and Hydrate. As mentioned earlier, a symptom of the winter blues and SAD is an increase in cravings for carbohydrates and sweets. Set a goal to plan nutritious, healthy meals and snacks, to maintain and boost energy. Choosing meals mostly of carbohydrates and sweets can create a cycle of cravings and energy crashes. Aim to keep energy levels stable and even by eating healthy food, limiting caffeine and swapping caffeine drinks of soda and coffee for decaf alternative. My personal favorite in the winter, teas, and hearty soups packed with vegetables and protein.
5. Increase Activities. It is tempting to stay inside and bundle in during the cold winter months. Monitor how often you are bundling in and staying home. Too much bundling in and isolation can detract from your well-being. So be sure to keep a balance of active days where you accomplish tasks and are productive to be
6. Increase Self-Care. Set aside time every day for self-care. Even fifteen minutes of self-care can be restorative and improve well-being. To read more on increasing self-care, please click here.
7. Talk to a Professional. If you are unable to find the motivation or energy to make some of these suggestions or if you notice symptoms are problematic and disruptive to your daily life, then please reach out to your primary care physician or mental health provider for diagnosis, support and treatment recommendations.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2017