The winter blues affect an estimated one in five Canadians, according to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. Of those who experience the winter blues, ranging from depression to milder winter doldrums, one in four have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition in which severe mood disturbances occur over at least two consecutive winters. Seasonal depression affects eight times more women than men and the risk increases the further you live from equator, says Mount Sinai.
Depression is the most common mental health problem for older adults, according to the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health. So it is especially important to watch for symptoms that recur in winter, such as change in appetite, weight gain, decreased energy, tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability, avoidance of social situations, and feelings of anxiety and despair, advises the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Shorter days and reduced sunlight seem to be the main trigger for the winter blahs because they can disrupt your body’s internal clock, which responds to environmental cues like light and darkness, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Shortened daylight hours may deplete stores of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin while boosting production of sleep-inducing melatonin.
Let in light, lift your mood
Fortunately, as more is known about the triggers for winter blues, there are simple steps you can take to brighten your day and lift your mood:
1) Embrace the morning light. Research has shown exposure to morning sunshine or a bright artificial light source, such as a light therapy lamp, is more effective than evening light in treating winter depression.
2) Get moving daily. Many people tend to be less active in the winter, but regular walking, swimming or any other exercise you enjoy doing indoors or outdoors can boost your mood by raising the brain’s level of serotonin and endorphins.
3) Be social. Older adults often find it harder to get out and socialize people in the winter months, but isolating yourself can worsen depressive symptoms. If you don’t drive, think of arranging transportation to group activities or classes, or life your spirits by inviting family and friends to visit.
4) Travel south. Even a short sunny getaway can lift your spirits and provide a refreshing break from your routine.
5) Seek help. If these steps don’t improve your mood, talk to a healthcare professional. Cognitive behavioural therapy and other methods have been shown to be effective for seasonal depression, if light therapy doesn’t work, says the NIH.