When Dr. Norman Rosenthal moved from South Africa to New York City he expected a few changes. However, what surprised him most were the effects of the winter season. First came his lower level of energy and then changes in his mood. Rosenthal noted these changes and linked them to the fact that the days had become shorter and dark as the winter season approached. Being the first to diagnose and describe Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) and the winter blues, Rosenthal noted the predictable symptoms he saw in himself and others.
“They slow down and have a hard time waking up in the morning. Their energy level decreases, they tend to eat more, especially sweets and starches, and they gain weight. Their concentration suffers, and they withdraw from friends and family. As you can imagine, their work and relationships suffer, and they can become quite depressed. This symptom cluster often lasts for four or five months until the days become longer again. Since the syndrome is linked to a lack of light, people with SAD may become depressed during cloudy weather at any time of year, or if they are confined to windowless offices or basement apartments.”
Research shows that six percent of the US population is affected by Seasonal Affect Disorder. Another 14 percent of the adult US population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as the winter blues. The National Center for Biotechnology Information noted that seasonality affects people all over the world.
“The prevalence of SAD in Oslo, Norway, was reported as 14 percent in contrast to 4.7 percent in New York City. In fact, someone may have winter blues while living in southern climates and convert to full blown SAD if he or she moves to a northern climate.”
What We Can Do
As one who wrestles with the winter blues I take measures leading into the winter season to help combat this difficult season. I make it a point to get outside as often as possible. When possible I take my phone calls outside and walk and talk. When it’s cold, wet and raining that becomes more difficult. A few years ago I started running and ran my first half-marathon. I began realizing the positive effects from getting outside, moving my body and receiving regular exposure to the sun. As a result of this type of movement I began sleeping better. When I maintain a regular sleep pattern I can regulate fairly well. Based upon Rosenthal’s recommendation, I also invested in light therapy. Sun lamps can be used in an office or room in your home to help mimic sunlight. In addition, consider talking with your doctor about your vitamin D levels and the idea of a taking a supplement if necessary. Most recently I created a self-care plan. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to speak with groups and organizations about the importance and development of a self-care plan. During this process a person creates an inventory of personal needs and values, support system, community resources, and personal and professional goals. These items should be written down, posted where they can be seen and shared with a select few. Goals are more likely to be achieved when they are specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound. Partnering with a counselor, mentor, close friend or family member can be helpful in this process. During the winter blues I tend to isolate. Having this plan in place and my support system identified has helped me to reach out, share how I feel and partner with my friends and family to contribute to the work and relationships in the community.
If you feel the heaviness of the season has become too much please consult your doctor and consider making an appointment with a licensed mental health counselor.
Lastly, all things will be made new again. Throughout the season I have found it very helpful to remember that after the winter season will come the livelihood and growth of Spring. Consider making your very first self-care plan today as you make it through a difficult season, even the winter blues.