It’s been two weeks since legendary groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his burrow to deliver the dreaded “six more weeks of winter” proclamation, which leaves us with about a month of cold weather left before we begin to transition to spring. Regardless of whether or not you choose to accept the groundhog’s prognostication, it’s fairly easy to assume that we have a few more days of cold air and gray skies ahead of us – this is East Tennessee, after all. It’s probably fair to say that most all of us prefer spring, summer and fall over winter, but for some, winter actually can be a painful, depressing season. There are a few reasons why this happens, but there also are a few solutions for those who are experiencing the winter blues.
Psychiatrist Dr. Julia Wood from Blount Memorial Parkway Psychiatric Service explains the details of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). “In the winter months, many people can feel sad and down, which can lead them to lapse into episodes of depression with low energy, changes in appetite or concentration and an inability to function normally,” Wood said. “This can be attributed to a lack of sunlight. In northern parts of the country, rates of seasonal affective disorder are around 10 percent, while in Florida, that rate is only about 1 percent. Exposure to sunlight through our eyes is important for the production of certain hormones and neurotransmitters, including melatonin and serotonin. Therefore, without sunlight, we have an imbalance of these substances, which can lead to symptoms of depression,” she explained.
If a lack of sunlight is the problem, Wood says more sunlight might be the solution. “The most important thing is to have exposure to sunlight,” she said. “Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to get outside during daylight hours. If your lifestyle allows, I recommend bundling up and taking a walk outdoors. When you’re inside, try to sit near a window with sunlight exposure. There are light boxes that are specifically designed to treat seasonal affective disorder, which can be helpful for some people. There are, however, several different types of light boxes available and each can be a little expensive, so I strongly recommend seeing a physician first to help determine whether or not it would be an effective treatment for you. Your doctor also can help you select the right type of light box and explain how to use it properly. Also, there are some risks for using light boxes for certain people, so it’s important to understand how those might apply to you, as well,” she explained. “It’s also important to point out that tanning beds are not recommended as a way to treat seasonal affective disorder, as the light exposure that helps us battle the winter blues comes through our eyes, not our skin,” she added.
In addition to sun exposure, Wood says there are other ways to help improve our moods during winter months. “Thirty minutes of vigorous exercise at least three times per week has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of depression, but any amount of exercise can be helpful if you can’t make that much time in your schedule,” she said. “Of course, eating healthy and nutritious foods, spending time with loved ones, and engaging our minds in new activities also can help us feel better through the winter months,” she added.
Wood sees patients at Parkway Psychiatric Service, located at 451 Blount Memorial Physician Office Building in Maryville. For more information or to schedule an initial appointment, call Parkway Psychiatric Service at 865-980-5377.