Dwindling daylight hours, cold and gray weather, worn-out snooze buttons — all are signs that the big, bad winter months are here to stay. Two of winter’s comrades, stress and depression, sometimes surface at this time of year, presenting a bursting-at-the-seams bag of mixed emotions that affect many of us. But how do we differentiate between a few rough days and something more serious?
A Cleveland Clinic study found that up to 20 percent of the U.S. population experiences symptoms of mild winter blues, which produces a general feeling of sluggishness or fatigue lasting several days. The study notes that between four and six percent of people suffer from a subtype of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
“We all feel down from time to time,” says Seattle social worker Allison Fine. “But the difference between someone having winter blues and SAD is that SAD persists throughout the winter season, sometimes becoming more severe as winter months go on.” Fine says that in places like Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, seemingly endless cloud cover leaves us (particularly women) hunkered down indoors, unmotivated and deficient in vitamin D.
Additionally, the stress and demands of the holiday season can lead to depression in a vulnerable individual or exacerbate preexisting depression. Seattle-based counselor Lisa Erickson says SAD affects and interferes with daily living and is marked by symptoms such as changes in appetite, loss of interest in activities, increased irritability and difficulty sleeping. Feeling “blue” in combination with these symptoms for more than two weeks warrants a visit to your doc.
Avoiding stress is key to managing depression of all levels of severity. “Stress undermines our natural resilience,” Erickson says. She recommends gracefully avoiding stressful situations around the holidays and choosing to be around positive and understanding people. Keeping our plates a little less full and doing what makes us happy combat stress head on.
Whether it’s a case of the winter blues or clinical depression, the support of family and friends is crucial, Fine says. “The best thing families can do to support loved ones living with depression is to educate themselves on the illness.” Assuming that someone with clinical depression can handle the illness with a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality is not realistic, Erickson says. A true understanding of the nuances of the illness and treatment options is the best support for someone with depression.
Sharlyn Gehrs is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor.
December’s list: 5 ways to cope with depression
1. Take time for yourself. You can’t be everything for everyone. When you start with self-care, others will benefit when you’re free of stress. Take time to recharge your batteries by doing what makes you happy, and you’ll have more energy to accomplish your goals.
2. Have realistic expectations. Go into every situation knowing that not everything turns out perfectly, and be accepting of all outcomes. View any less-than-perfect results as a chance to demonstrate your resiliency and flexibility. A broken ornament or burned turkey will only create a long-lasting family memory.
3. Remember what’s important. Hectic schedules and competing commitments can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Take a step back to reflect on what’s really important to you and your family, and spend your energy on those things.
4. Don’t abandon healthy habits. Focus on fueling your body with healthy foods and get plenty of sleep and exercise. Take a walk at night to breathe in the crisp air or listen to soothing music. Finding something to reduce your stress will clear your mind and restore your inner calm.
5. Seek support. Attend community or social events if you’re feeling isolated. Express your feelings to your loved ones in an open and honest way. If feelings of depression, anxiety and hopelessness persist, and you’re unable to participate in your daily routine, talk to a doctor or mental health professional.
Sources: American Psychological Association; Lisa Erickson; Allison Fine