You wake up on a dark, blustery winter day and just don't want to get out of bed. You feel down in the dumps, with no desire to do anything but pull the covers over your head. You've got the winter blues. The desire to hibernate is strong and that tired, sluggish, "don't-want-to-get-out-of-your-jammies" attitude takes over. Melancholy is the only emotion you can muster.
"I get down, too. It's normal. But I try to remember what I preach to others," says Amy LaRoche, licensed marriage and family therapist in Fairfield. "You need to coach yourself and make things better by putting a positive spin on things. If you get caught up in the negative stuff, that's what will happen."
The sun and fresh air are important for our bodies and minds, since levels of melatonin and serotonin -- natural substances that regulate sleep, mood, appetite, memory and more -- are affected when we're exposed to less light.
"I tell people to try and get outside if they can during the day. The sun can definitely make a difference in your attitude," she says. "You should also make plans. It makes you accountable and gives you something to get out of bed for."
The winter blues are real and can be triggered by events such as the end of the holidays or the first snow storm. But it also can affect people from Halloween to the first sign of spring.
"People tend to isolate themselves when the temperatures go down. But they should be seeking out even more social interaction," says Lisa Colvin, patient advocate at St. Vincent's Medical Center, Behavioral Health Services, Westport campus. "I am one of those people who doesn't like the cold weather. But it's all about catching your negative self-talk. If you can catch those thoughts, the better off you will be."
For instance, instead of saying, "I don't want to go to work today because it's too much effort," you can reframe it to say, "I'm still going to have a good day."
"It starts with a thought, the thought affects your feelings and then your feelings affect your actions," she says. "There is a saying that many people use, `Fake it til you make it.' Put a smile on and make the outside of your body look happier so it affects what you are feeling internally."
Those who suffer from the winter blues often have low energy. They withdraw from others. They may gain weight because they comfort themselves with high-calorie foods and don't exercise as much. They have trouble concentrating and sleeping.
But there are many ways to prevent the winter blues -- or at least shake yourself out of them.
The right food, drink and exercise can help
Certain foods can fight depression and help prevent, or at least soften, the winter blues, says June Archer, holistic health counselor in Danbury. "I'm really big into cooking in the winter. I find I am happiest and I feel better when I am making some good, hearty seasonal foods such as soups with root vegetables," she says. "Anything soup-like is goodness in a bowl. You have all the nutrients you need, and you can throw in your own spices."
Her favorite is pumpkin and black-bean soup. But she also likes a creamy navy bean soup into which she adds kale.
"I eat it for breakfast, too," she says. "Leafy green vegetables give you a boost of energy, and your blood sugar is leveled off. If you just start out with bagels and cream cheese, you are riding a roller coaster of refined sugars."
She also suggests avoiding tropical fruits, such as pineapple, in the winter -- unless, of course, you are on a tropical beach -- because those types of fruits cool your system. Apples and pears, however, are good winter fruits. "If you can follow the seasons with the correct foods, it will give you even more energy and keep you grounded."
Many of us, she says, become dehydrated, which can contribute to depression. "They are reaching for food, but all they need is a glass of water," she says. "In the winter, it is a bigger problem because our heaters are drying us out."
Archer tries to help people see the difference in how they feel when eating junk food compared to eating healthy whole grains, good proteins and vegetables. "One of my clients was at the mall one day and ordered a hamburger from a fast food joint. She hadn't had one in many many months," Archer says. "She called me and said that she had a migraine the next morning."
Besides overloading on sweets and carbohydrates during the winter months, many of us also turn to alcohol to self-medicate the blues. But that only exacerbates the problem because alcohol is a depressant, Colvin says.
"Stay away from excessive use of alcohol," she says. "Plus, you need to watch your caffeine intake. It could affect your sleep and contribute to your anxiety."
Connect through community, family and friends
Don't sit alone in your house. Just because it's dark outside doesn't mean you should hibernate and getting out and about is especially important for those suffering from winter blues.
"Making plans and actually putting things on your calendar helps you have things to look forward to," says LaRoche. "Whether it's a Friday-night pizza night with your family and friends, a date night with your husband, or a Rotary meeting, it gives you some outlets to be with people."
She suggests calling a friend for a coffee date. It gives you the incentive to get out of bed, take a shower and put on some makeup. "Even on those most dreary days when you don't feel like moving, it makes you more accountable to have things in the works."
LaRoche had a client who would come to her appointments in sweatpants, wearing no makeup. She was gloomy. LaRoche told her to try and put on makeup the next time and dress up a little to see if that counteracted some of her sadness.
"She tried it the next time and said she definitely felt different about herself. Busy moms don't often take care of themselves," she says. "But they need to learn that they are worth it."
For Colvin, having a grateful attitude can help her out of the doldrums. "I need to be authentically thankful for what I have," she says. "It's a self-awareness that needs to develop through the years. Not many people have that. How they are thinking does affect their feelings. With positive thoughts come positive feelings."
She also tries to socialize frequently during the winter. "With many family birthdays going on, you have happy events. But you can plan smaller happier events," she says. "If you don't like to go out, then plan for others to come to your home. Have a card or game night.
10 Ways to Combat the Blues
1. Be social: Invite others to your
home for a game night or dinner, go
to the library or
enjoy your morning coffee at a nearby coffee shop so you are surrounded by people. Don't sit at home just because
2. Exercise: Feel better about yourself and make your muscles move. It not only will make you stronger but will kick in your endorphins for a happier mood.
3. Try something new: Exciting your brain and your creativity can only make things better. Take a cooking class, paint or join or start a book club.
4. Volunteer: Giving to others gives you a purpose for getting up in the morning and can stop the depression because your focus is on someone else.
5. Get the right nutrients and vitamins: Eating well can always help your mood. In the winter, comfort foods such as soups actually warm your body. Try to eat good portions of foods with omega 3s and vitamin D to stabilize mood. Too many sweets and carbohydrates can get you down and cause weight gain and sluggishness.
6. Drink water: Dehydration can be a big cause of depression. Your body needs water. Keep drinking it and your body will begin craving it. Sometimes people grab for food because they think they're hungry, when in fact they're just thirsty.
7. Bring color into your life: Wear bright colors, bring flowers into your home or add colorful pillows to your living room.
8. Use positive affirmations: Find your own mantra that helps you stay balanced, and say it a few times a day -- try "I will be happy throughout the day." Whatever it takes, keep believing it.
9. Dust off your cookbooks: Try something new that excites you and gets your creative juices flowing.
10. Keep in touch with loved ones: Whether you write an old-fashioned letter or call them on the phone, reconnect with those you don't often see. You might just cheer them up, too!
Are You SAD?
If you or someone you know is depressed every winter, they might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
"SAD spells true behavior dysfunction to the point of not being able to cope with work or family," says Dr. Michael Terman, head of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and the Clinical Chronobiology Program at New York State Psychiatric Institute. He also is a psychiatry professor at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and recently released a book on his research of light therapy to treat SAD, Chronotherapy -- Resettling Inner Alertness.
Light therapy has been around a long time and has shown to be effective for those with SAD. Lights run about $150 online and should have 10,000 lux (a measurement of light intensity). Most people need 30 minutes a day with the light angled toward the eyes.
Terman says SAD is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year and about 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population is affected -- although as many as 20 percent are burdened by the winter blues, which is short of a major depression.
"Multiply the percentages by current population numbers, and you're up into the millions, the balance weighted toward the upper half of the country," he says.
Symptoms of SAD include irritability, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, weight gain, appetite changes and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. Light therapy helps because the nervous system connects directly from the eye to the brain's inner clock. When that inner clock sees the light, it can respond.
"Bright-light therapy is the first order of treatment that will be most effective for most people," Terman says. "Standard antidepressant drugs can also help and even be combined with light therapy as the situation may require in some cases."