As the days get shorter and the cold gets colder, it’s easy to stay inside instead of meeting up with a group of friends on a weeknight, sleep in later on the weekend and consume more calories and get less exercise than during the glory days of summer.
All of this coinciding with less sunlight can fuel the winter blues, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
“Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that can worsen in the winter months,” said Teresa Meierotto, Iowa Wesleyan University assistant professor of nursing and emergency room nurse at Ft. Madison Community Hospital. “I think a lot of people don’t take it seriously. They’re afraid to be labeled as being depressed or having a mental illness.”
SAD typically comes around annually, in October or November, and ends at the same time every year in the spring. With less sunlight, people begin to stay inside more and don’t get the natural vitamin D they need. People who can normally get out and garden, mow their lawn, take a walk or even just visit with friends find themselves cooped up inside.
Symptoms of SAD could be low energy, feeling sluggish, irritable or having difficulty concentrating and losing or gaining weight.
The first step to treating SAD is recognizing what it is and admitting to needing more help during a bad day, Meierotto said.
“Some things (you) can do to encourage your friends is bundle up, get outside, there’s a lot of safe walking places the cities and counties clear off really well,” Meierotto said. Not only is this exercise, but it’s getting some of that much-needed vitamin D.
Meierotto also encourages people to check out their local recreational centers, a lot of which have indoor walking tracks. It’s exercise combined with seeing other people too, she said.
“A lot of people slack off in the wintertime,” Meierotto said. “I know I slack off. I love those bulky sweaters,” she laughed.
Another aspect feeding into SAD could be the major holidays around this time of year. Those who have lost family members or loved ones may feel lonely in a fast-paced society. People don’t make the time or can’t get away to visit with other people, Meierotto said.
SAD is common in young adults from 18 to 35 and the elderly. For the young adults who have just gotten out of college, are working their first job and may not be where they want to be in life, it’s hard to manage expectations, Meierotto said. “
You’ve got to build up to it in life, it doesn’t just happen,” she said.
For the elderly who may not be able to get out of their homes during icy and snowy weather, it can be hard to be cooped up inside. Meierotto said there is a national trend of increase in suicide in elderly people.
“Usually elderly men if they’ve lost a spouse or retired from their jobs kind of feeling like they don’t know what to do with their lives anymore,” Meierotto said.
At Ft. Madison Community Hospital where Meierotto is an emergency room nurse, she said some patients volunteer to bring other people to the hospital for checkups and appointments, and then just sit in the waiting room and chat.
“Join a club, join a group, join a fitness club, get out and socialize, volunteer,” Meierotto encouraged. “Any type of social interaction, any type of helping someone else always makes a person feel good about themselves. They’re doing something worthwhile and they feel worthwhile.”
Other ways to combat the winter blues are eating healthy. While it’s harder to find fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter months, eating healthy, drinking calcium like milk and consuming other dairy products is going to help get that natural vitamin D.
And stay away from alcohol, which is a depressant, Meierotto said.
Counseling is always an option too. “There’s a lot of counseling groups out there … they’re all confidential,” Meierotto said. “If you’re starting to have those thoughts and don’t want to get out of the house, it’s OK to call and talk to someone. A person has to take care of their own personal health before they can take care of anyone else.”