Fall & Winter Blues
Finally!—it is lighter in the morning, but unfortunately, darker in the afternoon. No one needs a reminder that we have entered into that dark (and wet) time of year.
More than twenty years ago, my family and I moved to the Northwest. We arrived on a cold, gray day in July! Welcome to Washington. Back in Massachusetts, it was 85 degrees and sunny! But I loved the long days here—with the western sky lit until 10 p.m. (when the sun finally did come out!). At first, it was hard for my young kids to get to bed on time because it was still light outside.
But as autumn set in and the days shortened, I noticed that I felt foggy in the morning when I woke up to go to work. Of course, it was still dark in our bedroom. It seemed to take hours before I would be fully alert. At first, I was a little confused by this. I have always been a morning person! During the summer, when the sunlight peeked through our blinds at 5 a.m., I popped out of bed—still a little sleepy (after all it was 5 am), but ready to go. By the time I hit the road, latte in hand, I was all systems go.
What I discovered, like many individuals in Northern latitudes, was that I was experiencing symptoms of SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to the National Institute of Health, symptoms build up slowly in autumn and early winter (that was me), and can include increased appetite and weight gain, increased sleep, less energy and ability to concentrate, social withdrawal, loss of interest in work and other activities, and irritability.
One study found that the incidence of these symptoms occurred in 1.7% of adults in Florida and in 9.5% in Finland (I am definitely not moving there!) It is estimated that over 14 million Americans may go into a full-bore depressive episode during short winter months. But 33 million more Americans can have symptoms like mine, and also have a decline in cheerfulness, productivity, and energy.
Norman Rosenthal, author of “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder” describes SAD as an “energy crisis”. And, sufferers crave carbs! Cookies, cake, pasta, and bread to provide temporary relief, and added pounds during winter months.
For the last 15 years, I have been using a “dawn simulator” which has worked very well for me. I use it all year round. It has a globe that is set on top of a clock. Thirty minutes before the alarm goes off, the globe begins to glow and becomes increasingly brighter during the interval before the audible alarm goes off. This artificial “sunrise” makes a huge difference for my energy level and ability to focus in the morning.
- Bright light therapy can be very helpful too. Sitting in front of a bright light (10,000 lux) for 30 minutes a day can make a big difference. Dr. Alfred Lewy, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, and an expert in SAD, recommends that patients do this in the morning. He believes that this condition has to do with the wake/sleep cycle or circadian rhythms. These lights are widely available and the price has come down ($75-$150). You can even buy these devices in your local drug store.
- Get outside. Exposure to the real thing, muted as it may be on a rainy, dark day in November, is still a good thing. During these months, I try to walk outside at least 30 minutes a day.
- Exercise. Studies have shown that exercise is equally as effective for mild-moderate depression as medication. During winter months, I bulk up my exercise routine and try to add something new. I have started taking yoga (my oldest daughter is a yoga instructor) several times a week. Try Zumba! With the music turned up high, you can dance your way into more energy.
If you find that these suggestions aren’t helping you get out from under the blues, talk to your doctor. Medications and therapy can be helpful too.