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Winter Got You Down?

I made a Facebook comment after the Holidays that I was slowly recovering from Christmas Affective Disorder.  For me, Christmas is stressful, hectic and challenging.  I struggle with it every year.  After the seasonal rush, it takes me days, or even weeks, to get back to my normal equilibrium.  However, really, winter despair is not a joke and for some, can be debilitating.

In fact, some research suggests that up to 15% of people in Ontario experience the “winter blues”. These leave you feeling tired, groggy, and maybe even sad or irritable.  While this causes discomfort, it is not incapacitating.  However, a more serious form of the winter blues, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), can be.  While occurring less frequently at 2-3% of the population, the symptoms can prevent individuals from leading a normal life.  Symptoms of SAD include decreased energy, changes in appetite, especially leading to cravings for starchy or sweet foods, oversleeping and weight gain, among other things.  If you feel this is you, talk to your doctor and have your symptoms investigated.

The problem is not always the blues, but how these create a negative behavior cycle.  When you feel down, you revert, avoid, or change habits.  This leads to feeling worse and the cycle continues.  Occupational therapists (OTs) recognize the importance of being engaged in activities that are meaningful, active and productive, and understand how these contribute to health and well-being. In fact, one of the best treatments for beating the winter blues involves just “keep on keeping on” by doing what you normally do every day.  Some tips include:

 1.       Use behavioral activation to keep your normal routine.  Make the bed, have a shower, prepare a decent breakfast, walk to the mail box.  Don’t change habits that are ingrained just because it is winter.  Never underestimate how damaging it can be if you avoid even small things that ultimately add up to a productive day.  Gradually try to get back to those important tasks if you have found that your daily behaviors have become unproductive.

2.       Stay active.  Those that love the winter do so because they get outdoors.  Walk, ski, skate, toboggan – something to help you appreciate how wonderful a change of seasons can be.  This is best facilitated by proper clothing that will keep you warm.  If exercise is tough for you, build it into your day by default – park farther from the door, use the stairs, make a few trips from the car with the groceries to get the blood flowing.

3.       Consider light therapy.  Sit by the window at lunch, get some fresh air when the sun is out, or consider purchasing an artificial light for your use at home.

4.       Up the nutrients.  When some bad eating habits creep into your winter these can be hard to break come spring, and only contribute to further mood declines.  Shop in the fruit and veggie isles, and avoid the isles that house the bad foods you seem to be eating too much of.

Finding ways to help you do the things you want to, need to, or enjoy, is at the heart of occupational therapy. While the winter months can be long, dark, and cold, ultimately how we adapt to the seasonal change is up to us.  If moving or going south is not an option, consider some of the above tips to make the winter bearable, or dare I say, even enjoyable?

Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2013) http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/
Beat The Winter Blues (Readers Digest, no date) http://www.readersdigest.ca/health/healthy-living/beat-winter-blues
Kurlansik, SL & Ibay, AD. (2012). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Dec 1;86(11):1037-1041.
10 Winter Depression Busters for Seasonal Affective Disorder (Borchard, no date) http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/12/30/10-winter-depression-busters-for-seasonal-affective-disorder/
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