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Don't Let the Winter Make You S.A.D.

When temperatures start dropping as snow starts falling and the days get shorter, often we can spend too much time inside hunkering down, like hibernating bears. This can lead to feeling cooped up, irritable, lethargic, sleepy and being unmotivated which are symptoms of cabin fever — a term dating back to the 19th century when early US settlers spent long winters stuck in their log cabins essentially snowed in until the spring thaw.

But cabin fever also has a legitimate medical term  called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  It is a cyclic, and can be serious, condition characterized by depression brought on by the short winter days. It is caused by a disruption of our biological clock related to brain chemicals. Melatonin is a brain chemical that affects sleep patterns and the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which is responsible for maintaining mood balance; both are decreased due to the reduced sunlight hours in the dark days of winter. The prevalence of SAD increases in populations living farther away from the equator. The treatments for SAD can vary from antidepressants and psychotherapy to full spectrum light therapy. This is a light source used in your home that emits light wavelengths similar to sunlight. Talk with your doctor if you think your symptoms are severe.

But for the majority of us, SAD doesn’t get that extreme. Most of us just have a simple case of the winter blues. Aside from eating healthy and exercising regularly in the winter, chasing the sunlight is another way to beat the gloomy feeling that winter brings. For me, I love to beat the winter blues by spending as much time as I can outdoors while the sun is shining. Getting out even for a short walk in the fleeting daylight hours when it’s sunny can  help you sleep better and feel more refreshed and energized during the day. And of course, if possible, a winter vacation to a sunny destination works wonders too.

Be sure to plan ahead because during the winter doldrums it’s hard to get motivated to do much of anything! So be proactive. Try to schedule some time in the sun this winter, so you won’t be singing the winter blues.

Finally, it's important not to trivialize depression. Should SAD or depression get in the way of taking care of yourself and your everyday functioning or if you have feelings of helplessness and hopeless you may need professional mental health guidance or an intervention that could even be a medication.

That means it’s crucial that you talk to your doctor. Don't be afraid to tell your doctor how you feel.  Your doctor can ask you a series of questions that should help you determine if you’re seriously depressed or not.

Depression is not permanent and there are treatments that help. It’s important to act on your depression. And, if you feel worthless and have thoughts of  wanting to harm yourself, here’s a new hotline number to call that’s easy to remember.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is now known as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Just call 988 as soon as those feeling start. There is help out there.

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© Dr. Leigh Vinocur, 2022.