Winter Blues Got You Down? 6 tips to combat the doldrums

Feb 8, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mental Health, Muffy Walker

by Muffy Walker, MSN, MBA

Muffy Walker, of the International Bipolar Foundation, writes a mental health column for KRL every other month.

For those who live in the northern hemisphere, days are short, sunshine is minimal and temperatures are low. All of these factors, alone or combined, can bring with them the winter blues. For those already coping with a mood disorder, winter may trigger more serious symptoms including those related to Season Affective Disorder (SAD) or bipolar disorder. In fact, according to researcher Jess Fiedorowicz, (Bipolar Disorder 2013), depressive symptoms in patients with bipolar disorder peak in the winter.

Why does this occur? With shorter days and colder temperatures, we tend to go outside less, socialize less, have interrupted sleep patterns and “hibernate” more.

According to John Preston, MD, co-author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder and a psychopharmacology expert in the treatment of bipolar disorder, “Decreased bright light exposure can trigger brain changes. For people suffering with bipolar disorder, this can occur certainly in winter months.”

Here are 6 tips to help you beat the winter blues:

1. MELATONIN: Low mood may be triggered by a disruption of the body’s production of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that plays a role in sleep and mood. Ask your doctor if taking this supplement would be helpful for you.

2. LET THE SUNSHINE IN: As temperatures drop, we stay inside more. Going outside within 2 hours of waking to get sunlight will help improve sleep and mood. While inside, increase sun exposure by opening curtains and sitting by windows. “The light we get from being outside on a summer day can be a thousand times brighter than we’re ever likely to experience indoors,” said melatonin researcher, Russel J. Reiter of the University of Texas Health Science Center. “For this reason, it’s important that people who work indoors get outside periodically and moreover that we all try to sleep in total darkness. This can have a major impact on melatonin rhythms and can result in improvements in mood, energy and sleep quality.”
And, according to the Mayo Clinic, “A light box mimics outdoor light. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.

3. Ommmm: A recent review of clinical studies published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice found that hatha yoga showed promise as a potential treatment for depression. In part, that may be because yoga involves the practice of breath work; done regularly, slow and quiet breathing exercises can help lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and protect the body from stress. Dr. Andrew Weil wrote in TIME: In essence, meditation is nothing other than focused awareness. Although it can be used as a relaxation technique, I find it most valuable as a method of restructuring the mind, breaking habitual patterns of thought and creating seeds of balance to oppose erratic mood swings. Over time it can provide great mental-health benefits: relief from ordinary anxiety and depression, better rest and sleep, and increased resistance to disturbing influences on emotional equilibrium.

4. GET A MASSAGE: During massage, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can be high in depressed people, fall while levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin–the same brain chemical increased by antidepressant medications–rise. So get out there and treat yourself!

5. LUNCH ANYONE? During winter’s colder days, not only do we stay inside more, but we tend to socialize less. Studies have found that social support often plays a role in health and well-being. Many researchers believe that social support can help:
• Improve mental and emotional well-being
• Reduce stress and stress-related illnesses
• Improve recovery from illness
• Increase immunity (resistance to disease)

6. IS THE DOCTOR IN? If you’re already in treatment, it’s important to tell your provider about how you’re feeling. In fact, nipping this in the bud, pre-winter, is best. Medication adjustments, light therapy and/or increased sessions can be discussed as options to staving off the blues. If you’re not yet in treatment, now’s a good time to start.

Staying on top of a dip in your mood can help prevent something more serious. And remember, spring is right around the corner.

Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.

Muffy Walker was born and raised outside of Philadelphia, PA. She currently resides in Rancho Santa Fe with her husband John C. Reed and their three sons. In 1983, Walker graduated with a Master’s of Science in Psychiatric Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked in the mental health field for over 18 years until she moved to California when she obtained her MBA with a focus in marketing from the University of California-Irvine. Walker is the founder and President of International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF). After learning that her youngest son had Bipolar Disorder, Walker joined other mental health boards and ultimately started IBPF. She has served on a plethora of boards including Children’s Hospital, Kids Korps USA, NeighborHelp, ChildHelp USA, and has dedicated the past 10 years of her life championing the education of the public about mental illness.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent article, Muffy! I didn’t know you write every other month for the KRL, so I’ll be sure to check it out from now on & look at the archive.

    Re: #2, I’ve been using a Sunbox DL for many years and I love it. The company is reputable and endorsed by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, SAD expert and author of the classic “Winter Blues”. It was worth every penny, but insurance companies sometimes reimburse for a light box cost if you submit a doctor’s note.


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