Beating the 'Winter Blues'

(Getty images/ABykov)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — I remember distinctly the moment I first told my wife we were moving to Indianapolis for a great new opportunity at WTHR. There was elation, followed by her biggest concern — the weather!

Even though my wife was born and spent some of her youth in the Midwest, she quickly grew tired of the cold, overcast skies and snow. We were probably spoiled after spending years in the south, between stops in Texas and South Carolina. We both crave sun and warmth, but the reality is, we love Indiana!

So how do you overcome living in the Midwest during December through March?

Well, psychologists have diagnosed it as "Seasonal Affective Disorder," or "SAD" for short.

Experts define it as a type of depression related to the change in seasons. For most, the symptoms typically start in late fall and continue through winter.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Sadness
  • Appetite changes
  • Losing interest in activities
  • Changes in sleep
  • Fatigue and irritability

However, there is hope.

I spoke to Dr. Danielle Henderson, a clinical psychologist with IU Health, about ways to cope. Some of the tips are simple enough: get outside, take a walk, sit by a window if it's too cold to go out, make plans or make yourself go out with family and friends. She says if those don't do the trick, then it's definitely time to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician to talk about your mood and symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, most experts say that shorter days and less daylight in winter cause a chemical change in our brain. The sleep hormone melatonin might play a part too. Doctors say the body makes more melatonin when it's dark, and since it's darker longer in winter, you may have more melatonin in your system, which could cause some fatigue. The brain chemical serotonin could play a part too. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in it, which could cause depression.

If they deem you do indeed have SAD, then obviously there are medications, even mild anti-depressants that can be prescribed, according to Dr. Henderson.

"With Seasonal Affective Disorder, we might notice these symptoms kind of staying around a little bit later into the winter and then hopefully starting to improve around the springtime when our weather and seasonal changes do happen," Dr. Henderson said.

However, she said if symptoms still last through spring and summer, then speaking to a trained professional is paramount. Also, if a friend, family member or co-worker comes to you to talk about their concern, they may have SAD. Dr. Henderson said to be sensitive to that. Listen to them. Be a support system. Offer counsel.

For Christine Winger of Fishers, she admits she's suffered from the winter blues since early adulthood.

Carmel Middle School counselor Christine Wanger uses running and exercises as ways to cope with her mild Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Christine Wanger)

She's never been diagnosed with SAD, but she definitely notices change this time of year.

"It really hits January, February," Winger said.

Winger is a school counselor at Carmel Middle School, so she's not shy about opening up regarding her mood in the winter time and how the the change of season affects her.

"The lack of sun, lack of being able to get outside...I've noticed that I've just struggled with like lower energy levels. I feel like I'm more irritable," Winger said.

Experts estimate SAD impacts about 10 million Americans. They say another 10 percent to 20 percent may have mild SAD, which is most likely the category Winger and my wife fit in.

Research shows SAD is four times more common in women than in men. So, Winger has found ways to cope with the winter blues that work for her.

"Definitely running and exercise is the biggest thing that helps me get through it," Winger said.

She runs at least a mile a day. It's a challenge she enjoys. It gets her outside, breathing fresh air and sometimes, the sun is even out!

Dr. Henderson agrees that's a great way to conquer the winter blues but knows that each case can be unique.

Find healthy and safe ways that work for you!

Again, it's important to remember to never be afraid to talk to someone.

Remember, we at WTHR are proud partners with Community Health Network. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, you can find resources for assistance by clicking here.