Surviving the season

Mental Wellness

What to do when winter's not so wonderful.

Does your mood drop dramatically with the mercury? Here's how can you tell if it's a seasonal shift or something more serious.

The Blahs
What is it? That constant urge to sigh when the days are cold and gray.

Who gets it? By the 73rd day of gray, frigid weather? Just about everyone.

What it feels like: You long for May flowers (or a vacation in Maul), but think you can live through February.

Duration: Until temps hit 50 degrees or until the last pile of dirty snow melts.

Effects: Claw marks on the walls from all the climbing.

Treatments: A weekend on the slopes, an afternoon making snowmen, cocoa.

The Blues (depression)
What is it? A disorder marked by feelings of dejection, despair, and hopelessness.

Who gets it? Ten percent of Americans; women are more susceptible than men.

What it feels like: You feel discouraged, worthless, or irritable. You sleep too much or too little. Your sex drive dwindles.

Duration: From weeks to years, if left untreated. The start of spring doesn't help.

Effects: It can disrupt relationships, work habits, and decision-making.

Treatments: Psychotherapy and antidepressants; diet and exercise can help, too.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
What is it? A mood disorder that may be caused by the body's clock being out of sync with sleep and wake cycles. It can be triggered by winter's darker days.

Who gets it? Some 10 million Americans (particularly women). Also, people who live in climates with dramatic winter daylight shifts.

What it feels like: Depression. You may crave sugary or starchy foods (and subsequently gain weight). You feel relief as days lengthen.

Duration: It's cyclical, beginning around September and lifting in March or April.

Effects: Like depression, SAD can make you feel isolated and hamper your ability to function.

Treatments: Many depression treatments also work for people with SAD. (See "Why so SAD?" at right.)

Why so SAD?
These tips may help ease Seasonal Affective Disorder.

CREATE YOUR OWN SUN. Many SAD sufferers get extra "sun" by using a light panel for at least 30 minutes each morning.

EAT SMART. A small Harvard Medical School study found that drinking two specially formulated, high-carb drinks a day helped SAD sufferers, easing depression and curbing carb cravings. But other experts charge that sweets and starches make symptoms worse. Bottom line? Stick to a healthy diet.

GO OUTSIDE. Outdoor exercise gives you a shot of endorphins and a dose of daylight, which can lift your mood. "Taking a 20- to 30-minute walk outside can relieve symptoms," clinical psychologist Raymond Crowel says.

GET HELP. If your symptoms are severe or don't respond to light and exercise, consider seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants until daylight savings time.

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By Kate Madden Yee

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