Monday, October 31, 2016

Managing the Winter Blues: Specific information and approaches to help control Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder - SAD) and the more mild and common form, winter blues

The Health and Wellness Catalyst:  October, 2016

This past year I have worked on a corporate wellness project for a healthcare system and it has been a revelation to me how common seasonal depression is, and how important it is to understand its influence on mood so that it can be managed effectively.   What I found was that about 20 percent of the participants that I worked with had this seasonal depression or winter blues, which I thought was surprisingly high – it also was important for me as their health coach to support them with information and/or approaches that would help them to address it.  In this way they could be more aware of their seasonal and yearly tendencies, and take specific steps to clarify, adjust and/or sustain their health and well-being goals.

I therefore went to one of the best resources:  Winter Blues: Everything you need to know to beat seasonal affective disorder, by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, 4th edition, Guilford Press, NY, 2013.  Dr. Rosenthal is a psychiatrist and one of the leading practitioners who has developed, researched and educated the public (and the healthcare field) about seasonal depression.  I also heard an interview with him (I think on Voices in the Family with Dan Gottlieb, PhD on NPR) and he is a truly caring physician who has made an important contribution to mental health and to those who see him as a health practitioner.

Anyway, Dr. Rosenthal states in his book that about 5 percent of the US population has SAD and another 14 percent have winter blues – which is about what I observed in my health coaching project.  Interestingly, some people start to feel the changes in the fall when days start to get shorter, while others commonly feel it starting in the coldest winter months of January and February.  SAD and winter blues can be felt by experiencing one or more of the following symptoms: feeling down or depressed, having difficulty focusing on work or in relationships, snacking more (especially on carbs and/or sugar), feeling more tired, sleeping more, difficulty waking up in the morning and many other possible symptoms.

What to do if you feel like you may have SAD or winter blues:

1.     Learn more about SAD and winter blues – look at information provided by reliable sources online or get Dr. Rosenthal’s book.  Also, discuss it with your primary care doctor and/or counselor or psychologist to help determine whether it is having an important effect and what steps should be considered.
2.     Look at your lifestyle to see how well you are doing with your nutrition (diet and targeted nutritional supplementation), exercise and fitness (are you consistent?), and your stress level and relaxation techniques (are you balancing the stress enough with exercise, relaxation/mindfulness/ meditation and time for yourself?)
3.     Light therapy – research suggests that it is very helpful for season depression and newer research suggests that it may also be helpful for non-seasonal or unipolar depression also.  Make sure you get a good light box that has been approved for SAD or winter blues and make sure you spend time each day in front of it to get the light that you need to feel better.
4.     Consider seeing a psychologist, social worker or counselor to get more specific assistance and support, and if necessary, consider if anti-depressant medication may be needed.
5.     Regular exercise is helpful for managing both stress and mild to moderate depression – is your program helpful? Are you following through with it? Do adjustments need to be made?
6.     Good nutrition is important - the foundation should be a natural, healthy diet, which could be a Mediterranean type diet or a lower/moderate carbohydrate diet.  Targeted supplements could be added also such as B complex, vitamin D, fish oil, magnesium, chromium and/or others.
7.     Meditation, mindfulness and stress management techniques such as yoga, tai chi, chi gong, and others can help – again do you have a good program? Are you following through? Are adjustments or new approaches needed?
8.     As with all symptoms or disorders, it is important to identify the most important and unique effects for you (for example, knowing when symptoms tend to start), what approaches are most important for you and getting support from the practitioners who are part of your healthcare team and/or family and friends who are part of your support network.   

As this discussion shows, there are many options for effectively managing SAD and winter blues, but half of the challenge is realizing that this may be a problem for you, and then the other half is to get into action by learning about it and finally getting any help that you need to manage it.

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