Light up those winter blues

Christmas is "the most wonderful time of the year," according to a familiar carol or two. But the holidays may not be so jolly for everyone.

Each year, 10 to 25 million people find themselves staving off "winter blues" as the weather turns colder. Some people have a tendency to hibernate in winter months, which experts say is part of a natural emotional cycle. Gina Gold, a psychotherapist with Craig Mental Health, said some people may be more susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) otherwise known as winter depression.

SAD typically begins in early to mid-fall and lasts until spring, with the worst symptoms occurring during the darkest winter months, Gold said.

"As the snow begins to fall, so do the spirits of some people," she said. "It can be like fighting depression."

Light is crucial in the onset of SAD, said Dave Spencer, a psychotherapist with Yampa Valley Psychotherapists in Craig. Studies show that short, gray days and less ultraviolet sunlight can often trigger the winter blahs.

"Bright light therapy is the most established treatment for SAD," Gold said. "SAD is not a psychosomatic or imaginary disorder. Researchers have proven that bright light makes a difference to brain chemistry."

"One of things you can do is to plan activities during the daylight hours," Spencer said. "You can do something as simple as going to a tanning bed."

Gold said the role of melatonin is also being researched as a contributing factor in SAD. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. The amount of light seems to directly influence how much melatonin is actually secreted the less light, the more melatonin. Melatonin causes body temperature to drop and thus contributes to sleep.

SAD is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a subcategory of depression. Some warning signs that may indicate the winter blues or SAD are:

n Wanting to isolate.

n Not engaging in normal activities, or not doing things you normally enjoy.

n A lingering "blue" mood.

n Craving carbohydrates or wanting to eat more.

n Sleep problems oversleeping but not feeling rested, needing a nap.

n Low energy, fatigue, feeling of lethargy.

n Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

n Joint pain, stomach problems, lots of infections.

n Low moods, despair, hopelessness, guilt.

n Irritability, anxiety, frustration.

"If someone truly has the early winter, cabin-fever blues, the stress of the holidays can aggravate it," said Bill Austin, a psychotherapist in private practice in Craig and Steamboat Springs.

Austin suggested that instead of withdrawing, people choose social engagements that will be the least stressful and the most rewarding. It's important to squeeze regular exercise into a harried holiday season, he said. People should watch their sugar and alcohol intake at parties to help moods stay elevated.

Experts say SAD is seasonal, and symptoms disappear during the summer months. Planning a warm-weather vacation can be an effective antidote for seasonal blues, Spencer said.

According to Gold, the amount of brightness needed for SAD light therapy is five times brighter than a well-lit office. "Don't stare directly into the light," she said, "But read or do another sedentary activity that allows the light to reach the eyes. About 15 to 20 minutes a day is enough to alleviate symptoms of SAD."

Both Gold and Spencer advise anyone whose sad mood lingers year round to see a health professional.

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