Local Mental Health Professionals: Beating the Winter Blues

| February 4, 2019

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – The dreary days of winter can bring on not only a dip in energy but also feelings of hopeless and depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a particular type of depression which changes with the seasons, most often building up in the late fall and early winter and going away during the warmer months of the year.

While SAD is not officially recognized as a separate disorder in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), individuals can be diagnosed with SAD if they meet full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons for at least two years, according to the NIH.

Even those who do not technically meet the criteria for SAD can struggle with some winter blues, as well.

ExploreClarion.com reached out to some local mental health professionals to learn more about how SAD most often affects people in our area, what steps people can take against SAD, and when it is best to reach out for help.

Jean Drayer, of Family Psychological Associates in Clarion, noted that while they don’t see many cases of SAD in their practice, they do see a number of cases of individuals with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder whose conditions seem to become exacerbated during the winter months.

“Fall through winter, many people seem to have more of a struggle with their mood stability,” Drayer said.

Retired Psychologist Dr. Kathy Meley, who formerly had a private practice in Cooksburg, noted that she had seen some cases of SAD during her years of practice, and it seemed to her that multiple factors were involved.

“Some of it, I think, is genetic. You often see it in more than one person in the same family. But, it’s also environmental,” Meley said.

According to Meley, getting less sunlight during the winter, both due to less sunlight being available, as well as people tending to stay inside when the weather turns cold, can lead to low Vitamin D levels, which can contribute to depression.

Jessie Sabella, Clinical Director for Regional Counseling Center in Oil City, agreed, noting that Vitamin D deficiency can specifically lead to depressive symptoms.

Sabello said that some of it is just kind of normal. “You want to crawl in bed when it’s dark outside, and that has to do with your circadian rhythm.”

Your circadian rhythm, also known as your sleep/wake cycle or body clock, is maintained by exposure to light. Getting less light, particularly sunlight, during the winter months can lead to feeling tired and sluggish.

Another factor is that many people get less exercise during the winter months.

Meley explained that “people aren’t as likely to be out taking walks or doing other outdoor activities for exercise during the winter.”

“Exercise is the number one way to deal with depression or SAD with absolutely no side effects, only upsides.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), signs and symptoms of SAD can include low energy, feeling depressed most of the day on a daily basis, feeling hopeless or worthless, losing interest in activities, trouble sleeping, feeling sluggish or agitated, having difficulty with concentration, experiencing changes in appetite or weight, or even thoughts of death and suicide.

“For those who believe they may be suffering from SAD, one thing that can help is to spend more time with other people,” suggests Drayer.

“Don’t keep yourself isolated, try to stay connected with other people.”

Meley, Drayer, and Sabella all recommended focusing on healthy eating habits, staying hydrated, keeping a healthy sleep schedule, and exercise to help with feelings of depression.

“Exercise is a big one. Even if you can just do some jumping jacks or floor exercises inside, it’s a huge mood booster,” noted Drayer.

While many of the suggestions for keeping the winter blues away may sound like common sense – as maintaining healthy eating and sleeping habits is always a good idea – there are other things that can help, as well.

“Journaling can also really help,” Drayer said.

All three of the professionals we spoke to also noted that there are special light therapy lamps that can be useful in treating SAD.

According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy utilizes a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep. Along with SAD, it is also sometimes used to help treat other types of depression, jet lag, sleep disorders, and dementia, as well as to help adjust to changes in sleep schedule (such as switching to a nighttime work schedule).

While these tips may help reduce some symptoms of SAD, there are times when seeking out professional help is necessary.

“Any time you’re dealing with any kind of mental health issues, you’re always encouraged to call someone, go to your primary care provider, or get a referral. And you can certainly always call here,” Drayer said.

“I would say, if people can’t even get themselves to exercise when they are normally into fitness, or if they’re exercising and going outside, struggling to make themselves do it, and it’s not helping, then it’s time to check in with someone or talk to someone,” Meley said.

Sabella advises, “If you have any major changes in personality or thoughts of suicide, definitely call for help immediately.”


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Category: Local News, News