PHILADELPHIA — While the winter blues may represent a normal reaction to the season, for some, the depressive feelings may linger and could be a sign of a larger issue. In addition, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people with lower incomes, who often encounter additional obstacles and greater stresses in their daily lives, have higher rates of depression than those with higher incomes. That can make this time of year even more difficult for those facing economic hardship.
“Trying to tell the difference between an occasional down day and what might be the signs of a mental illness can be challenging. There is no easy test to tell if a person’s actions and thoughts might be typical behaviors or the result of a physical or mental illness,” says Dr. Michael Golinkoff, senior executive for behavioral health at AmeriHealth Caritas. “An early diagnosis can lead to faster treatment, which can help not just a person dealing with mental illness but also those close to them.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern is characterized by “recurrent episodes of depression in late fall and winter, alternating with periods of normal mood the rest of the year.” Symptoms, according to NAMI, usually begin in the fall and subside in early spring.
Dr. Golinkoff notes that the following behaviors, while not a confirmation of seasonal depression, can be early warning signs that a person should talk to their doctor:
- Excessive sleeping or inability to sleep.
- Significant weight loss or gain.
- Severe fatigue or loss of energy.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating, or indecisiveness.
According to Dr. Golinkoff, social engagement can be a great tool to combat the winter blues. Some activities that can help include:
- Participating in public activities and programs — According to the American Psychological Association, loneliness is a risk factor for depression. Recreation centers, libraries, places of worship and local non-profit organizations may offer free public events and activities during the winter months that give plenty of opportunities to connect with others and keep people from staying isolated at home.
- Volunteering in the community — Engaging in philanthropic activities, particularly those which help repair or restore something important, can foster positive feelings of pride and self-efficacy.
- Get moving - Physical activity is not only good for physical health, but can also clear the mind, improving energy level and decision-making ability. And engaging in activities with others can also boost emotional well-being. Check out local gyms, community centers or online groups like Meetup to learn of ways to be physically active while engaging with others.
- Spending time with family or friends —Emotionally positive relationships can improve mood. Rather than staying in, watching TV or eating alone, choose to connect with family and friends.
If clinical treatments are needed, NAMI suggests standard depressive disorder treatments such as medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. NAMI also suggests light therapy, an approach in which patients use a light box to provide artificial intensive light, with the hope of making their body believe that they are experiencing bright sunlight.