The days are short and so is your ability to tackle the problems du jour. Everything, including the snow and the ice, seem heavy and drab, and the color of your mood ring turns a scary blackish blue.
Although the number of suicides peaks in the spring, the winter months — especially for those huddled under a snow drift during the first two months of the year — can trigger a major depressive episode or worsen the symptoms in persons with chronic depression.
So what to do?
1. Get a lightbox.
Less sunlight can affect your circadian rhythm, the body’s internal biological clock that governs certain brain wave activity and hormone production. This can cause symptoms of depression for sensitive folks, like me. So I sit under my mammoth lightbox for at least 30 minutes a day. Lightboxes are the typical light system used for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in clinical studies. They are flat screens that produce full-spectrum fluorescent light, usually at an intensity of 10,000 lux. Make sure you position the light box according to the manufacturer’s instructions or else only one side of you will be happy. And try to use it the same time during each day, preferably in the morning.
2. Watch funny movies.
Plenty of research has indicated that humor can relieve pain. In a study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, some patients were told one-liners prior to getting potential painful medication. They experienced less pain compared to patients who were not told jokes. One of the most effective strategies I use during the winter to get out of my head is to watch the movie “Airplane” or some stupid comedy with Adam Sandler like “Grown Ups” or “Jack and Jill.”
3. Volunteer (or just help someone).
Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” That’s certainly true if you review research on the health benefits of volunteering. According to a study published in the The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, volunteers report greater life satisfaction and better physical health than do non-volunteers.
Volunteering also relieves both physical and mental distress. Research published in Pain Management Nurses showed that persons suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain. You need not join a volunteer agency or travel to Haiti for a month. I consider ten minutes of helping out my neighbor as volunteer work.
4. Eat brain food (foods that fight depression).
There is some connection between cold weather and simple carbohydrates that I don’t fully understand, but definitely appreciate: when the temperature dips below 40 degrees, I crave macaroni and cheese, white bread, and sugar cookies. The end result is not pretty. Here are some foods to avoid during the chilly months to give your brain a fair chance in fighting the blues:
- Refined sugars. They cause blood glucose levels to spike and then plummet.
- Artificial sweetners. They block the production of serotonin.
- Processed carbohydrates. Foods like bread and pasta cause the same impact on your blood sugar levels as eating a basket of jellybeans.
- Hydrogenated oils. Anything that contains trans fats can potentially cause depression because they clog arteries and prevent blood flow to the brain.
- Foods high in sodium. Excess sodium can disrupt your neurological system, contributing to depression, and can muck up your immune system response, causing fatigue.
- Alcohol. It’s a a central nervous system depressant.
- Caffeine. Energy drinks, particularly, are bad news as some of them contain the caffeine equivalent of 14 cans of soda.