Helpful Hints for Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Alex Orlov for Life by DailyBurn

Do dark, chilly days make your mood cloud over this time each year? You’re not alone: Roughly 10 to 20 percent of Americans report feeling tired or sad when there are fewer hours of daylight in the winter months. With bone-chilling temperatures and blustery winds, it’s easy to give in to laziness and snooze just a little longer instead of dragging yourself to that early Spinning class — or, make a date with Netflix instead of bundling up and getting dinner with friends.

While many people can still function even if they’re feeling a bit melancholy, for some, winter brings a clinical form of depression called seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD. According to Kelly Rohan, Ph.D, professor and director of clinical training at University of Vermont, at least 2 percent of the population suffers from the psychiatric condition, but that percentage tends to increase in regions with shorter hours of sunlight. Researchers estimate that up to 10 percent of Alaskans experience SAD symptoms such as fatigue, overeating, loss of interest in activities and difficulty concentrating.

Another SAD factor? Genetics. Just like depression, your likelihood of experiencing seasonal affective disorder can increase if your family has a history of mood disorders. And surprisingly, gender may also play a role in your bleak winter outlook. Studies show seasonal affective disorder is four times more common in women than men. Though researchers have struggled to understand exactly what contributes to this gender difference, Rohan has one hypothesis. “Women [stereotypically] ruminate on feelings more than men,” she says, and brooding on those sad sentiments can lead to more severe depression in some cases.

Beat The Blues
What causes this wintertime down-in-the-dumps attitude? Research published in the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology this October reveals that it’s a biochemical imbalance that’s at play. Come winter, people with SAD experience a significant dip in serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for mood, appetite, sleep, memory and libido.

“When someone notices significant distress or problems functioning in everyday activities, like performing at work and maintaining healthy relationships, that’s the time to consult a professional for an evaluation,” says Rohan.

But even if you don’t suffer from full-blown seasonal depression, you may feel less social and more pessimistic come winter. “As the season changes, our circadian rhythms get impacted because the sunlight pattern has changed,” says Ani Kalayjian, Ph.D, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. “If you know that you get less joyous in winter months, you have to start a preventative approach.” After all, you prepare your home, car, garden and other things for the seasonal change, so why not your body? Kalayjian suggests evaluating the severity of your symptoms (energy level, appetite, desire to be social) and then exploring forms of treatment.

Fortunately, there are several easy ways to boost your mood if you’re experiencing an energy dip this winter. Here are some of the best expert-backed strategies.

1. Soak up morning sunshine.
According to Kalayjian, winter blues will be worst in the mornings when you’re rousing yourself from bed. She tells clients to open curtains as much as possible to get exposure to natural light right when the body is waking up.

2. Maintain your routine.
“The most helpful thing is to try to keep up everyday activities,” says Rohan. Once daylight savings time occurs, don’t neglect your favorite hobbies just because winter spurs an impulse to hibernate. You’ll feel better knowing you’re still making it to your weekly book club, basketball game or brunch with friends.

3. Work it out.
During a killer gym session, the brain works hard to override the temporary feelings of discomfort by telling the body to keep pushing. You’ll naturally release endorphins, which will make you feel happier and even euphoric. A meta-review published in the American College of Sports Medicine Journal in 2013 suggested that, for some individuals, exercise might be comparable to therapy or anti-depressants as an effective treatment for depression.

4. Flip a switch.
Research suggests that light boxes can help up to 50 percent of people who suffer from SAD. The bright light emitted from these devices helps the body awaken in the morning and decreases the hormone melatonin that keeps us asleep at night. And for those seeking a quick fix: Studies show that light therapy can spur a mood lift in just several days. “Based on the literature, [light therapy] is a very effective treatment,” says Rohan. However, since the FDA does not regulate light boxes, she recommends consumers pursue light therapy under the supervision of a professional. “It takes some trial and error to get it just right,” she says, emphasizing that timing, positioning and potential side effects should all be discussed with an expert before you begin treatment.

5. Ditch the sugar.
It’s common knowledge that too much of the sugary stuff will make us gain weight and puts us at risk for developing diabetes and certain cancers. And research shows that sugar has a sour effect on mental health, too. Countries that consume the most sugar have higher rates of depression, and scientists hypothesize that it hinders the body’s ability to cope with stress and can worsen anxiety. Many people crave sweet and starchy foods in the wintertime because they provide a temporary energy boost, but these treats will ultimately leave you just as sluggish as before. Instead, opt for eating complete meals with good sources of protein and fiber.

6. Get outside.
Both Rohan and Kalayjian recommend breathing in some fresh air each day. Studies confirm that spending time outside can relieve stress, so bundle up and brave the cold for at least five minutes to lift your spirits. “It turns out that going for a walk in the morning after sunrise can be especially effective,” says Rohan. “It gets light to the retina, but it’s also physical activity.” Two birds, one stone!

7. Develop wintertime interests.
Bummed that you can’t play beach volleyball every weekend? Rohan recommends finding substitutes for the mood-enhancing activities you enjoy in the summer. “Having fun is central to having a good mood,” she says. “What are things to do in winter that are fun to do?” Strap on some snowshoes, check out a new fitness class, take a spin on an ice rink or step up your game in the kitchen — you just might find a new passion.

8. Practice relaxation.
Some down dog could help you get out of the dumps. Practicing yoga, studies show, can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Plus, preliminary research on meditation reveals that breathing exercises and mindfulness exercises can actually change neural networks and decrease stress. Kalayjian also recommends progressive relaxation, a technique that promotes body awareness by tensing and relaxing muscle groups throughout the body.

9. Book a trip.
Prepare for takeoff, because quality vacation time will certainly boost your mood. Those that suffer from seasonal depression will benefit from additional sunshine if they head south, but taking a break from work is important for anyone’s mental health. Studies show that people even experience pleasure from anticipating trips. “Across the board, SAD patients will tell you they feel better [after vacation],” says Rohan. But she cautions against depending on getaways for happiness. “I think it’s important to learn to tolerate the place where you live instead of jumping on a plane.” While you count down the days ’til your beach holiday, find ways to get joyous about the winter wonderland in your own backyard.

If you struggle with serious and continuous depressive symptoms, be

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Living In the Real World

Whenever someone famous commits suicide people are affected in different ways. There is usually the surprise and shock associated with the sudden death. There are the questions of why and how could they? Most of them have achieved success and wealth and have adoring fans. Why would a person who seems to have it all want to end their life? They live in the real world just like you and I.

When these people appeared in the public eye they seemed so happy and positive and full of energy. It seemed their lives were so easy and they were able to have whatever they desired. What we saw was just a snapshot of their life. What we saw was only what they wanted us to see. What we saw was actually fantasy and not reality. These celebrities lived in the real world as we all do. They all had a history of life experiences, tragedies, losses, as well as the happy times and successes. Some had medical issues. Others had mental health and substance abuse problems. It is not easy living your life in the public eye. It affects how others see them as well as making it more difficult to have stable relationships. They lived in the real world and what the rest of us see is merely an illusion.

Just like the rest of us, life sometimes gets to be too much to deal with. Feelings of desperation and helplessness and hopelessness take over. It seems there is no way out other than to put an ending to it all. They lived in the real world.

If you look at what you think their lives have been and compare them to your own remember that you live in the real world too.

Choices

Most of us grow up exposed to the habits and beliefs of our families of origin. We learn from them the way to do things and the way to think about and see things. Most of our beliefs come directly from them. It is common to adopt those beliefs or rebel and do the opposite of what we were taught. Neither is the best approach to life. Most of us grow up limited in our exposure to the variety of options available to us. My experience with clients and people entering a recovery process is the common view of seeing things in black and white.

Black and white and all or nothing thinking can cause people problems and inhibit their ability to solve problems and succeed in life. Many of us go through life unaware of how limited we are by our inability to recognize all the choices we have and choices we never consider as options. We have the beliefs we learn as children and carry with us into adulthood. Many of those beliefs do not apply to our adult lives. We have many choices for how we interpret the world around us. Keep this in mind. Many things mean many different things to many different people.

Most people tend to do what they are in the habit of doing and what is most comfortable for them. If we have not be raised in an environment of exploration and being open to new ideas it is difficult to go out of our comfort zone. We have to learn to think outside the box and explore all possible option in order to make better decisions and have a more fulfilling life. It is important to avoid black and white thinking and be able to see all the shades of grey.

Human Just Like You

I have been working in the mental health/addictions/human sexuality for field for over 20 years. I have counseled hundreds of individuals and couples, as well as facilitated hundreds of groups. For nearly 10 years prior to this I was in my own process of learning, growing, and overcoming many years of depression and low self-esteem. I worked with counselors, attended 12 step and support groups, kept a journal, and read many self-help books. Am I cured or immune from all my old thinking, beliefs, and behaviors? No I am not. Am I much better at maintaining a more positive and realistic frame of mind? I certainly am.

During the past couple of years I have posted many helpful ways of looking at life and managing feelings and the events we encounter. I hope this information has helped the thousands of people who have viewed my blog. But, offering this information and making suggestions is much easier that applying these things to my own life. I do a pretty good job for the most part maintaining balance in my life and my emotions. Am I able to apply these each and every day to each and every hurdle I encounter? The truth is that sometimes it isn’t so easy to reach into my bag of tricks and I experience the anxiety, anger, and depression that we all do. I don’t always remember the things I know. I have human experiences just like everyone else.

One way I benefit from all the work I’ve done on myself is that any emotional upheaval I experience is not as deep or long lasting as it once was. It is much easier to find my center once again. The things I suggest in my blog as well as ways to see the world which make it easier to manage are things I apply in my own life. Many people I know and many of my clients use what they have learned working with me. I have seen amazing changes in my life and in the lives of many others over the years. It took applying what we have learned consistently and being persistent. If you have the desire to improve and change your life you can. It takes time to change.

Let’s Talk About Expectations

I remember when I was much younger I was devastated that something I had expected to happen did not turn out as I thought. I was so angry that I decided that I would never have expectations again. That was a very wise thought and would have been very helpful for me to avoid tremendous disappointment and depression if I had followed through with that decision. I allowed my unmet expectations to cause me great emotional distress many times over the years. I really didn’t get that having expectations was complicating my life. It took many years and a great deal of disappointment for me to revisit having expectations.

One thing I learned over the years has to do with what I have control over and what I do not have control over. For the most part, only those things I do for myself and are not influenced by something outside myself are the things I can reasonably have expectations of the outcome. Even those things can turn out in a way I don’t expect. Anything that is not totally in my control I have little control of the outcome. Having expectations can give me a feeling of entitlement and can cause me to be in the role of the victim if the outcome is not what I had expected. If life does not meet my expectations it can have a negative impact on my self-worth.

We all have wants, desires, and preferences. Try to avoid having expectations.