Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Beating the Winter Slump


It's February and the winter seems like it will never end. Although we have a vague memory of the beauty and excitement of spring, most of us feel stuck in winter. It's not too late to stop and analyze the full effect of seasonal variations and to begin to make changes to improve the quality of our lives during the dark months of winter. About 90% of us are affected by winter. About 25% of the population suffers from the "Winter Blues" or the more serious "Seasonal Affective Disorder." The purpose of this column is to explain these seasonal differences and to suggest changes to combat the downward cycles of winter. You can start your self-analysis and begin making changes now and in preparation for next fall.

Many people do not realize the full effect of seasonal variations due to the stereotype that depression is the only symptom of seasonal disorders. It's important to realize that, in addition to mood, seasonal changes also affect energy levels, sociability, sleep patterns, appetite and weight gain. Do you feel slowed down in the winter? Do you feel more sluggish and lethargic? Feel yourself going into a kind of energy hibernation where life begins to seem like a chore and your identity begins to resemble a "couch potato"? Do you find it hard to concentrate and finish tasks? Does your mind drag and are you experiencing problems thinking clearly and quickly? Do you often feel like withdrawing from friendships? Are you sleeping more but actually feeling more tired? Are you craving carbs and heavy foods and gaining weight? And finally, is your mood depressed and your quality of life decreased? If you discover a seasonal pattern to these variables, you can begin to make changes.

Our bodies are profoundly affected by the changing light during the four seasons of the year. Our biorhythms have a natural relationship to the intensity of the light available to us. Brighter, more intense light generally leads to an improvement in mood, energy levels, work and social relationships, sleep and appetite with more possibility for weight loss or avoiding weight gain. Of course these effects vary among individuals, with some affected more profoundly than others. If you experience marked or significant problems in any of these areas during the winter season, you should consider obtaining evaluation and treatment for seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder appears to be related to a greater rest of obesity, diabetes and cardiac disease later in life. However, even if you experience a minor effect, knowledge of this seasonal variation may still be helpful to you in planning to improve the quality of your life in the winter.

Anyone of any age can suffer from these seasonal variations, although seasonal disorders are about four times more common among women than among men with a higher prevalence during the young adult years. Along with the variation in degree of seasonal difficulties is a variation in the timing of the problem. Some people began to dread winter as soon as the light patterns and leaves start to change in early fall, while others don't notice the difference until the days become noticeably shorter and darker. Some people merely feel more energized and positive in the spring, while others are almost high with "spring fever." Differences appear to be related to genetic inheritance, latitude and other environmental conditions effecting exposure to natural light. You should rule out problems caused by other disorders such as thyroid problems, hypoglycemia, chronic viral illnesses or fatigue syndrome.

Psychological studies have shown that indulging winter cravings actually increases seasonal disorders, even though the short-term effects may seem positive. Consider the craving to curl up in your warm blankets and sleep longer hours. Treatment results actually find that normal sleep hours, eight or nine per day, produce higher-quality sleep and more energy than additional time spent in bed. Exercise instead of hibernation during the winter produces more positive energy, especially outdoor exercise in the light. Indulging in carb cravings may produce an initial sugar spike and positive feeling which, however, is quickly followed by a drop in energy and vitality with a return to more cravings for comfort foods. Diets emphasizing proteins and carbohydrates in the form of fruits and vegetables are more conducive to health than are high carb diets. Maintaining social relationships is also protective against negative effects of seasonal disorders.

Use of light boxes is one key intervention proven to be effective with winter seasonal disorders. While exposure to natural light is helpful, the intensity of normal winter light is not sufficient to decrease winter blues. You should research available treatments with professionals in the field in order to obtain the maximum effect from light boxes. You will need to use a properly manufactured light box providing up to 10,000 lux for at least 20 minutes, usually more, as early as possible in the morning. You should purchase a light box with a 30 day warranty, since you'll be able to ascertain effectiveness usually within two weeks. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has also been shown to be an effective intervention for seasonal disorders with or without light boxes. The most effective treatments are individually tailored for your particular circumstance. Assistance of a therapist or life coach will be quite useful to you in developing your plan.