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Left Out in the Cold – Fighting Winter Blues

February 15, 2019

Has your mood dipped with the season’s temperatures? You may be experiencing winter blues.

Flannel sheets, fireplaces and frosted windows are a few hallmarks of the season. But for many people, the “low light” days of winter bring about a sense of low energy or melancholy. These feelings, also known as the “winter blues,” are very common complaints, explains Peter Bolo, MD, chairman and medical director of the department of psychiatry for Overlook Medical Center.

“This is definitely a feature of northern climates,” he says. “People in warmer climates don’t experience this. The farther north you go, the more seasonal depression you see.” This has nothing to do with temperature, Dr. Bolo points out; rather, it is related to how much natural light hits one’s eye throughout the day. For this reason, many people affected by winter blues find some relief by seeking out the right types of light. The bulbs you have in your fixtures at home will not help, but a 10,000-lux full-spectrum light that mimics the mood-enhancing effects of sunlight and therefore can affect circadian rhythms will.

Of course, light in the winter months does not have to be artificial to be beneficial. “If you can go outdoors, even on an overcast day, just half an hour to an hour of daylight can have a positive effect on someone with winter blues,” says Dr. Bolo. He suggests taking a walk (car windows block sunlight when driving) and shelving your sunglasses, as it’s the light source hitting the retina that signals the brain and affects mood. (Similarly, he cautions against using a tanning bed: “It will not make a difference, because it has nothing to do with light hitting the skin, and we know these beds can in fact damage skin.”)

Those with considerable symptoms for two weeks or more during winter months may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a medical diagnosis marked by a constellation of symptoms, including changes in sleeping and eating habits; difficulty maintaining relationships; a decreased level of interest and ability to experience pleasure; difficulty concentrating or focusing; and, if very severe, feelings of apathy toward existence and even suicide. “These symptoms are the same as those for any major clinical depression, but they present seasonally,” says Dr. Bolo. Antidepressant medications and psychotherapy likely would be helpful, in addition to light therapy.

Both the winter blues and SAD can be exacerbated by stresses of the holiday season. “This can be a difficult time for people and can contribute to seasonal depression,” Dr. Bolo adds. “Not everyone is joyous. Many people have lost loved ones, and this can be a somber time. It’s helpful not to feel constrained to spend the holidays in any culturally sanctioned, normative way. This may be the time to do something different and come up with new traditions.”

Call the Atlantic Behavioral Health Access Center at 1-888-247-1400 for information on treatment options.