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  • Dr Andi McDaniel

Staying Ahead of Seasonal Setbacks

By Dr. Andi McDaniel and Dr. Crystal Shelton

Every Season can bring unique challenges. Summer, especially in warmer regions, can chase you indoors too often, for too long, maybe with a house full of bored kids and a newly disrupted schedule. All of your ambitious travel plans, crammed into a schedule that alienates the fewest possible people, can leave people exhausted and fawning over travel photos that you literally can’t recall taking because of the whirlwind of activity. Fall you might be back to school with a new schedule, or sending kids back to school, or prepping your annual budgets, BoD reports, trying to manage a new sports schedule and have absolutely no way to reasonably prepare for whatever clothes you might need from one day to the next. Spring? Hay fever. Or trying to figure out what to do with all the early CSA and farmers market hauls that are mostly lettuce.

But winter is unique.

Along with every Northern Hemisphere mammal, humans are biologically programmed to conserve energy once the darkness begins coming earlier and lingering longer. If we were bears in caves, this might be an amazing time. Eat a ton then sleep for ages? Sign me up. But it can feel kind of awful when, instead of hibernating, you are waking up in the dark, and your neurotransmitters are not relaying your energy and vitality producing hormones quite as robustly. Its colder, sometimes icy, and maybe it is harder to make plans with friends and family. People end up getting more isolated during winter, the darkness driving down motivation and energy. And don’t forget the mixed magic of the holidays that can produce so many overwhelming feelings of anxiety, sadness, frustration even on the best of them.

This experience is common enough that it has become an established clinical diagnosis: Seasonal Affective Disorder. As a subtype of depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder can greatly benefit from any evidence-based depression treatment, such as CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But before you even get to thinking about whether you need to talk to someone, there are a few steps you can take to get yourself ready for the winter-blues.

Now is the perfect time to start pregaming winter, before you get weighed down and your motivation drops. Ask yourself a couple of questions to get started:

· Where are the biggest risks for me, personally, in winter?

· What kind of things have been the most difficult to deal with historically?

· What kind of adjustments might seem really difficult, but also might make a difference?

If you are feeling fatigue, depression, and withdrawn on most days and cannot get yourself motivated, then its time to talk to a doctor or therapist. Also, individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder are at increased risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder. If you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder and you experience SAD symptoms, be certain to discuss your symptoms immediately with your treatment provider.

  1. Light Therapy - The absence of light is a main contributor to people developing depressive feelings during the Fall and Winter months. Light Therapy is a targeted strategy for ensuring that you receive an appropriate amount of sunlight during these months. You can purposefully take walks during daylight hours (perhaps during your lunch break at work), take your morning coffee on the porch or balcony for a brisk but sunny wake-up routine, walk your dog (if you have one) during daylight hours, or even can specialized lighting therapy lamps for your home.

  2. Vitamin D – Lower sunlight can also mean lower vitamin D. If you are fatigued, consider checking your vitamin D levels, or making sure you are taking a quality supplement in conjunction with your medical provider.

  3. Healthy Diet – Strive to maintain a healthy diet during the Fall and Winter months (outside of those holiday parties) to support your physical and mental health. Particularly monitor your intake of sugars and unhealthy fats. While indulging in comfort foods is normal, be sure to moderate your intake of these foods.

  4. Aerobic Exercise – While it can be difficult to get yourself going when it is cold or when you feel depressed, exercise can help to support your physical health and to improve your mood through the release of endorphins.

  5. Medications – If you speak to a doctor and it is determined that your symptoms are severe and adversely impactful to your daily life, then your doctor may prescribe medications to assist in the management of your symptoms. If prescribed medications, be certain to use medications as directed by your treatment provider and discuss any adverse side effects with that provider immediately.

  6. Counseling – A skilled counselor can help you develop a tailored plan for treating your SAD symptoms that goes beyond the tips in this blog. If not certain what type of therapy to seek out, we recommend seeking a therapist trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), as CBT has been shown to be effective with treating SAD.

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