Ask any meteorologist, and he’ll tell you that the upstate New York region is tops in the U.S. when it comes to having the most overcast days. Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse are well ahead of the twilight of the Pacific Northwest.
Overcast days lend atmosphere to life – the warmth of a fireplace or the camaraderie of friends feel even cozier on dark days – but shorter days and lack of sunlight are the culprits behind most cases of winter blues. Sufferers can experience different degrees of the winter blues which can range from just feeling blah to a real depression, technically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Experts are unsure about the exact cause of winter gloom. It is thought that lack of sunlight is a factor because it disrupts the natural circadian rhythms in our bodies, in turn depleting serotonin, both of which impact mood and sleep. Genetics may also play a role. The symptoms of winter blues can come on as early as September or October and may start to wane when the days grow visibly longer, around March or April.
What do the winter blues feel like?
- Low energy and lack of motivation are two of the top symptoms.
- You may feel sad, cranky or anxious.
- Increased appetite and weight gain. You may crave carbohydrates like pasta and bread.
- You’re sleepy, but still feeling drowsy and unrefreshed when you’re awake.
- Diminished concentration in the afternoon.
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities, social withdrawal, sadness, and irritability.
How do I know it’s serious?
Healthy people can experience the winter blues, but serious symptoms can morph into SAD. If your feelings are starting to interfere with your life, check with your primary care physician. He can refer you to a professional who can tell the difference between winter blues and seasonal affective disorder. The good news is there is a lot to do to combat SAD.
Mother Nature’s #1 Antidepressant
Believe it or not, the best antidote is exercise. Exercise will not only treat the winter blues but will prevent it in the first place. Exercise causes hormones called endorphins to be released – triggering feelings of well-being and sometimes even euphoria. Endorphins are the cause of “runner’s high.”
Other effective ways to self-treat are:
- Following a healthy diet can boost energy and mood. Push away the pasta and bread and focus on lean protein, vegetables and fruit.
- Stay away from alcohol because it can trigger depression.
- Try to get more sun by skipping the sunblock when it’s bright out and doing your best to expose your limbs or torso – yeah, we know this might be impossible in the winter.
- Socialize with your friends, even though initially, it may be tiring to get yourself out.
- Give yourself something to look forward to during the dead of winter. The idea of a spring or summer vacation can be revitalizing.
- Take one day at a time and relax.
What can a professional do about the winter blues?
Your primary care physician can help you distinguish between feeling blah and more serious symptoms of depression. Aside from natural treatments you can enlist on your own, your physician or therapist can prescribe an antidepressant, talk therapy or light therapy. Light therapy is achieved with a special lamp that mimics light from the sun by utilizing a very bright fluorescent light of 10,000 lux or more. Sitting in front of a powerful light for as little as 30 minutes each day – early in the morning is best because that’s when the sun comes up – can result in improved mood in about three to four weeks.
Kevin A. Coffey, L.C.S.W., CGP, Ed.D., is the social work clinical coordinator for outpatient services in the URMC Dept. of Psychiatry. He primarily provides clinical evaluations to patients and facilitates group therapy sessions. He also is a Senior Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry and has a faculty practice in the department. He has worked at the University of Rochester Medical Center for 18 years.