Beating the Winter Blues
One of our core values is to recognize brokenness so it can be made whole. We believe God desires for each one of us to say yes to walking towards wholeness. We believe God cares about our anxiety, our relational baggage, our addictions, our apathy, our relationship with our body, our neighbors and ourselves. We have a growing community of women walking towards healing, as well as a community of counselors who are partnering with us to this end. We hope you not only enjoy hearing a counselor’s voice here, but that you open yourself up to the transformational work God is personally inviting you into so that you can see His healing as a reality in your life…
Beating the Winter Blues
On a recent November morning here in Bellingham, Washington, I awoke to alerts from Western Washington University, where I work part-time in the Student Health Center, stating school was cancelled for the morning.
I made my way, bleary eyed to the living room to peer out the window. And what did I see? That’s right; a rare northwest SNOW!!! And not just a dusting, but a blanket covering everything in sight. In fact, a beautiful winter wonderland. But despite my first gander at the white snow lounging on the limbs of our beautiful evergreens, a part of me took in a slow, quiet breath thinking…Winter has already arrived, and we have so many cold and dark days to come.
I know this sounds a bit melodramatic. But if you then consider that I am a local psychiatric physician, and am wondering how I am going to help my scores of patients not only survive, but thrive a likely five month winter, you might have taken a deep breath too. While winter is no sweat to many, it can be exhausting and burdensome to those who struggle with seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of recurrent major depressive disorder. It is characterized by fall and winter major depression, which typically remits in the spring. Various causes have been sighted including hormones, neurotransmitters, disruption of circadian rhythm, genetics and psychological factors. People with SAD have difficulty regulating the neurotransmitter, Serotonin, which is in part responsible for regulating mood.
They may also have overproduction of Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that responds to darkness by producing sleepiness. As the days become shorter in winter, melatonin release increases and those with SAD may become more sleepy and lethargic. Since our skin has less exposure to the sun in the dark winter months, those with SAD may produce less vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a role in Serotonin metabolism, and low vitamin D levels can result in symptoms of depression.
SAD is often referred to as “the winter blues.” At highest risk are those who are female, younger, live far from the equator, and have family histories of depression, bipolar disorder and SAD. In fact, seasonal affective disorder occurs four times more often in women than in men. Typically symptoms begin between the ages of 18 and 30.
Symptoms of Major Depression include:
- Feeling depressed, down, sad most of the day nearly every day
- Losing interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Low energy
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Those with SAD may also experience:
- Cravings for food high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Fatigue or extremely low energy
So there we have it. Winter is here and many will find that the cold, gloomy days lead to a chilly, somber inside too. This makes it harder to get things done like tasks at work, homework, housework, and even being around other people.
What can be done if we aren’t like the grizzly who can hibernate and sleep these months off? Well, fortunately for us, God has given us many helpful tools with which to decrease depression and apathy during the winter months.
Light therapy or phototherapy is one of the first line treatments. Light therapy can mimic the sun, but without the harmful UV rays. Light therapy boxes can be purchased relatively inexpensively and sometimes insurance companies will even cover their cost if recommended by a doctor. Don’t stare at the light, as you don’t want to end up with cataracts. It’s best if you are doing something else, like your Bible study, drinking coffee, or putting on makeup. However, the light must come through the eyes in order to be effective, and should be about 14 inches away (about the same distance as your laptop when you are working on it). The strength of the light box should be 10,000 lux for best effectiveness and should be used for 30 minutes within the first hour of waking up each day.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy is another effective treatment. A skilled therapist can help individuals with SAD identify and utilize coping skills to manage depression and anxiety and will help you learn to identify negative thoughts and behaviors that may perpetuate depression.
Mind and body techniques such as mindfulness meditation, guided imagery, yoga and relaxation have all been helpful for depression and those with SAD.
Regular cardiovascular exercise, about 20-30 minutes most days of the week is one of the best anti-depressant treatments we have. It also relieves stress and anxiety. The exercise has to be consistent though, for results to be seen.
Getting outside even on cold or cloudy days can help, as some sunlight inevitably comes though. This is especially helpful if you go outside within the first couple of hours of getting up in the morning.
Anti-depressant therapy can be quite helpful, especially if symptoms are severe. These medications are not “magic bullets” but can lessen the severity of depressive symptoms in conjunction with using some of the other strategies.
Socializing with others and making a concerted effort to be with others, even when we don’t feel like it, can make a significant difference in mood. There are very few people with depression that benefit from isolating by themselves, since that is when some of the negative thoughts running through ones’ mind can become the most intense.
Remember that Christians are not immune from depression, and this includes seasonal depression. None of us are immune. SAD can make a Christian feel as if they are doing something wrong, or are at fault in some way for how he/she feels. This could not be farther from the truth.
The Bible gives many examples of people experiencing depression and pain. Jesus understands our pain and we do not walk alone. It may help to make a gratitude list, pray, and read some of the stories of people who have experienced similar feelings such as Jeremiah, Elijah and David (Jeremiah 20, 1 Kings 19, Psalm 42). Remember that we can find Jesus in our pain. He himself suffered greatly and understands what we are going through, and will bring us hope.
If you are depressed, please tell someone. Talk to a friend, a counselor, a family member or your doctor. God has placed people in our lives for a reason and we are not meant to struggle alone. And remember, the thoughts and feelings you are having in the dark are not permanent. Soon, the sun will shine again.
This post was written by a counselor or therapist for informational use only and is not intended to replace advice from a professional who is working directly with you as a patient [or client].
What an amazing message of hope Laurie! Loved all the practical suggestions, your wisdom and words of encouragement-thank you