Understanding and coping with the ‘Winter Blues’

Have you ever noticed how your mood can change depending on the weather? The changes that are experienced due to the weather affect some people more than others. Research shows that it is quite common for people to experience increased sadness and have less energy during the winter months. At times people experience episodes of depression or increased anxiety during winter.

Living in Melbourne everyone knows something about unstable weather patterns and long winters. During winter we receive less sunlight than we usually do, often stuck indoors during the daylight hours. Researchers believe that the deficiency in light due to the weather may be what causes ‘winter blues’.

Sunlight is known to play a key function in regulating our biological clock. If we are placed in an environment where we are deprived of sunlight, we may be vulnerable to a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD (Oren, 2014). The disorder can be associated with many characteristics such as poor sleep, sadness, irritability, weight gain, and decreased libido.

SAD is a type of depression with similar symptoms, so it can often be difficult to work out if the blues experienced are due to the changes in the weather or not. However, if you get depressed during the same time each year, this lack of light might provide an explanation. It may be that the blues you experience during the winter months is something that can be treated. There is light at the end of the tunnel. (pun intended!)

The obvious fix if you are suffering from the winter blues would be a tropical holiday or a move to a sunnier place during winter. Whilst this approach works, this often isn’t practical. A more realistic treatment might involve seeing a psychologist who can help treat the symptoms, taking medication including Vitamin D supplements or antidepressants, and bright light therapy. Often a combination of treatment approaches gives the best recovery.

Light therapy (or phototherapy) is a treatment which is commonly used to treat disorders relating to one’s body clock. Light is artificially delivered to a person through a special light therapy box, which can be purchased for at home use. This can be a very effective form of treatment. It is believed that this exposure to bright light makes up for the lost sunlight that we have missed throughout the day. Of course if you don’t get enough light, you can try spending more time out doors. However, this isn’t the only thing that you can do yourself.

Exercise is well known to improve the blues, and getting outside when possible even in winter can help. Reducing stress, maintaining a healthy diet, and spending more time with friends can also help. Nevertheless, if you feel that the ‘winter blues’ are getting you down, it might be time to seek professional help. You can contact one of our psychologists to discuss, or contact your GP. If you require urgent support, or are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Oren, D (2014) Update on seasonal affective disorders: clinical issues and treatment strategies. Psychiatric Times Feb 28. Academic OneFile. from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/psychotic-affective-disorders/update-seasonal-affective-disorders-clinical-issues-and-treatment-strategies

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