If You Have the Blues in Winter, It Can Be SAD

Winter weather, for most in the Northern Hemisphere, is cold, dark and dreary – with little chance of a break for several months. The transition back from the holiday season with its increased activity and social engagement – parties, gift giving, family time, vacations – can be an emotional letdown, bringing on the January blues. For some 10% of Americans, depression is exacerbated by “SAD,” Seasonal Affective Disorder, triggered by the reduction in sunlight and the brain’s response to this underexposure.

Sandwiched boomers may feel an even greater strain, with the extra pressures of caring for growing children and aging parents. If you think that you might have SAD, consult your physician for an evaluation. A diagnosis can be made when your mood, energy level and motivation are all down during the winter months. You may be sleeping and eating more than usual, craving carbohydrates – this can lead to weight gain, which is depressing in itself.

Both our genetic predispositions and life scripts color how we cope with challenges. For these reasons, some people are more prone to SAD. Women have higher rates than men, making up over two-thirds of those diagnosed. If you are looking for strategies to help you cope with this disorder, here are 8 tips to get you started.

1. Get out in the sun, preferably for at least one hour a day. Even if it’s cold, bundle up and go for a walk during your lunch hour. Studies have shown that even 20 minutes of exercise can lighten your mood for two hours. Remember the fun you had as a kid playing in the snow? You can still enjoy winter activities like ice skating or skiing. If you live in a warm climate, participate in your usual outdoor exercise – jogging, biking, golf, hiking. And find a buddy to help you stay motivated.

2. Keep your home window coverings open to the light and your office well lit. A small heliostat, a computer-controlled mirror device, can increase the amount of direct sunlight reflected into the room. The more daylight you experience, the more your brain cells produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of wellbeing.

3. Your physician may prescribe phototherapy using a special light box, typically during daytime hours. It filters out most damaging UV rays, and the light shining on the retina inhibits the production of the sleep regulating hormone melatonin. A newer type of light therapy relies on LED technology – they’re smaller and easier to use.

4. If your despair continues or you have the signs of clinical depression, see a psychologist or psychiatrist for treatment. You will benefit from a professional’s input as you learn to challenge your negative thoughts and gain skills to manage your feelings. Your doctor can discuss with you whether antidepressants will be of assistance in your treatment plan.

5. Consider whether your expectations for 2011 are unrealistic. Perhaps your personal New Year’s resolutions are causing excessive pressure. Or your work supervisor is creating overly ambitious long-term goals and short-term objectives for you. While high standards may be an effective motivator for change, remember to be honest in evaluating your challenges, resources and strengths.

6. You can have more control over how you feel. When you change your thoughts from negative to positive, notice the shift in your emotions Attitude change is an important salve for the blues. Decide to spend less time worrying and more counting your blessings. Commit to healthier eating and more exercise. These have a double positive effect – you’ll feel better physically as well as psychologically, knowing that you can take charge of your behavior and develop resiliency.

7. Incorporate personal stress relievers into your daily life. Does listening to music, reading a good book, spending time with friends help you relax? Whatever works, make it a priority in your schedule. Deep breathing, meditation, a spiritual practice or yoga can ground you and provide balance. When you’re feeling relaxed you’ll be better able to cope with the hassles you face this winter.

8. Ask for support from friends and family. Call on your social network for help as well as connection. If you’re a sandwiched boomer, this might include getting some relief for childcare or eldercare responsibilities. Sharing your concerns can validate your feelings and give you a different viewpoint. You can also join a support group for new insight and perspective. And don’t forget to spend time with friends just for the plain fun of it – laughter is a great tension reliever and can improve feelings of wellbeing.

You’ll find that when you’re feeling more optimistic about your ability to change, you can brainstorm and develop better solutions. With a more positive outlook, you’ll use your innate abilities and personal strengths to move forward. And remember, no matter what the groundhog predicts, soon spring will be here with its longer daylight hours and brighter moods.

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