Laureen F. Guenther
When gray winter clouds hang low day after day, and it’s so cold we don’t want to go outside, we may feel the onset of the winter blues.
Rob Van Dyke, psychologist and clinical supervisor at the Strathmore Mental Health Clinic, says the winter blues are pretty common for Canadians. In fact, 15 per cent of us have a mild case at some point in our lives.
The winter blues may bring changes in our mood, so we feel sad or hopeless, Van Dyke says. We may have less energy and be easily fatigued. Some of us experience appetite changes, perhaps craving sweet and starchy foods.
We may be bothered by weight gain, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating. We may have less interest in sex or want to avoid social encounters altogether.
For most of us, the blues remain mild, lasting only until the sun comes out or the world warms up. But for two to three per cent of us, Van Dyke says, the blues last longer than a couple of weeks and /or begin to interfere with our daily routines. In that case, we might have Seasonal Affective Disorder which Van Dyke says is, “a diagnosable depression that has a seasonal pattern.”
No one is exactly sure what brings on the blues, Van Dyke says, but most theories suggest it’s due to reduced sunlight.
“As human beings, we depend upon sunlight,” he says, so less light seems, for some people, “to decrease mood and decrease energy levels.”
Sunlight also produces Vitamin D, and we may become Vitamin D deficient.
It may also be because we’re programmed ourselves to revolve around day and night.
“Less daylight and more darkness,” Van Dyke says, “could be signalling our bodies to want to sleep more and to hibernate.”
He points out that less light and colder temperatures also affect our behaviour.
“We aren’t as prone to want to go out and take a walk outside or jog outside. We might instead choose to curl up and sit on the couch and be less active.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing to do, “but exercise is a natural anti-depressant.”
Fortunately, although we can’t do much about our climate, we can do a lot to treat the winter blues.
“The most important thing to emphasize,” Van Dyke says, “is to get more sunlight in the day,” which can be as simple as taking a 20 minute walk. “If it’s too cold to be outside, open the curtains. Sit in the chair near the window.”
“The second biggest thing is exercise,” he says, “being intentional about...setting up my day so that I do get outside for a little bit each day, so that I do exercise.”
It’s also important to keep regular eating and sleeping patterns, he says, not “over-sleeping or under-sleeping, getting a good amount of sleep each night.”
Since “social isolation is a common symptom of a depressed mood,” said Van Dyke, we also need to be intentional “about surrounding themselves with people (we) enjoy.”
“These are things that have been proven to really generate positive momentum for people,” said Van Dyke. Those small steps can have a big impact.
But for some people, these steps aren’t enough. For people who are “feeling a prolonged depressed mood, with sadness, or feelings of hopelessness or despair,” Van Dyke says, “and/or if they’ve had major disruptions to their appetite or sleep patterns and certainly if they’re having thoughts of suicide” he encourages them to seek out the help of professionals.
His first suggestion is to contact a family doctor, who may provide medication and light therapy. He also invites people who are concerned about their mood to contact the Strathmore Mental Health Clinic through the Rural Addiction and Mental Health Intake Line at 1-877-652-4700.
“If they feel they’re having those symptoms, and they feel they’d be helped by counseling or therapy, they’re certainly welcome to call,” he said.
It’s also important to understand that feeling ups and downs is normal, Van Dyke says. It’s “part of what it means to be human....I hope people would not feel any shame in that.”