Blizzards and the Blues: Winter in New England

[Tweet “Think Spring!”]Sure sign of spring — crocuses

In the midst of winter — during a week in which three snow storms, one a possible blizzard, are predicted — do you long for spring? 

As I write this, it’s a cold, but beautiful day. The sun is shining and the sky is mostly blue with wispy strands of clouds. The calm before the storm. For some, the promise of a significant snowfall is reason to rejoice. It means skiing and snowmobiling and sledding and building snow forts. Others dread the thought of the driveway, sidewalks and roofs they’ll need to clear.

And then, there are people who feel blue in winter every single day, no matter what. Live in New England, where the days are short and the sun doesn’t shine all that much, and you’re especially vulnerable.

If, every fall and winter, you seem to get the blues or lapse into a depression that you can’t seem to climb out of until spring or summer, you may have seasonal depression.

Do these symptoms of depression ring true?

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Need for more sleep
  • Carbohydrate craving
  • Weight gain

The exact cause of seasonal depression isn’t known, but it appears to be triggered by sunlight — or rather, the lack of sunlight.

“Not everybody in Maine gets seasonally depressed or has what we call seasonal affective disorder or SAD,” says University of Maine professor and researcher, Dr. Sandra Sigmon. “Some people are just that more sensitive to the amount of available sunlight and we really don’t know why that is.”

Coping strategies

Whatever the cause, seasonal depression can be extremely debilitating. Dr. Sigmon has spent two decades researching SAD, including looking at how people cope with it year after year.

“Some people cope with it better than others,” she says. “They have an active strategy. They plan to keep up with their activity level, they do hobbies inside, they plan gardens to plant in the spring. They have some really good coping strategies. Other people just tend to go straight to a depressive episode. I think a lot of it comes about because we have time to think about it and we have so many cues in the environment that signal when it’s coming. For example, when that first leaf falls or if you see on television how many hours of daylight we have and it shows a countdown or you just look at the calendar.”

There are also cues to let us know — even with an impending blizzard — that spring is in sight. Honest! Hard to believe, but January is nearly over. The days are getting longer. February is a short month and then it will be March — the month of spring and longer days!

Treating seasonal depression

Light therapy —10,000 lux, says Dr. Sigmon — the amount of sunshine you’d be exposed to on a bright sunny day, helps a lot of people with seasonal depression. Some individuals may also need to take an antidepressant during fall and winter months. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be a big help. (Simply put, a cognitive behavioral therapist helps people recognize how their thoughts affect their moods and behavior and works with them to replace negative patterns of thought with more positive or healthier patterns.)

A few more recommendations

  • Get out in the natural sunlight as much as you can — at least 15 minutes a day to get the Vitamin D our bodies need. You can take a Vitamin D supplement, but being outside is especially beneficial because it also means you’re more likely to be active.
  • Keep up your normal activity level.
  • Try to eat consistently across all seasons.
  • Develop some hobbies or interests that you can do on longer winter days — and during blizzards.
  • Move to a sunnier location!
  • Inside, try to sit next to a window whenever possible.
  • If it’s a cloudy day, still go outside. Stroll around the block, walk the dog. At least you’ll be doing something.

Understanding depression – its causes and symptoms and how best to treat it can be overwhelmingly complicated. If your symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your everyday life, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional. Lack of sunlight may be at the root of seasonal depression, but there are other causes of depression — usually a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors. What is vitally important is that if you’re feeling sad and you know in your heart that something is wrong, you need to ask for help.

Do you have any strategies that have helped you cope with seasonable depression? Tell us what they are in the comment box below. Thank you!

This post was originally written for the Advantage Home Care Aging in Place blog, which I also write. Advantage Home Care provides services throughout Southern Maine to help elderly people live independently at home.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.