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January 15, 2016

Beating the Winter Blues

by Amanda MacMillan

Beating the Winter Blues

Baby, it’s cold outside! Dark, too. And that lack of sunlight can leave you feeling sluggish, unmotivated, and even a little depressed, says clinical psychologist Curtis Reisinger, PhD, who is on staff at Northwell Health's nationally recognized behavioral health center, Zucker Hillside Hospital and is corporate director of Northwell Health's Employee Assistance Program.

In fact, this coming Monday—the third in January—is sometimes known as “Blue Monday,” and has been colloquially dubbed the “most depressing day of the year.” Of course, there’s no scientific basis to this designation, but most of us can all agree that Mondays can be rough. And dark, cold Mondays in January can indeed feel rougher than most.

But if you’re down in the dumps, you don’t have to stay there, Reisinger says. Making a few changes can boost your mood and energy levels, even in the depths of winter. The key moves to make:

1. Start your morning with bright light.

“If you can increase your light exposure in the morning, it can help wake you up out of the fog,” says Reisinger. Natural light is best, so if you can catch some early morning sunbeams through your window or squeeze in a quick walk before work, you may feel more alert throughout the morning. If that’s not possible, it can help to flick on some bright lights as soon as your alarm goes off.

Even something as simple as checking your email on your smartphone, watching the news on TV or looking at a computer screen can help wake you up, says Reisinger. “The blue light given off by electronics tends to shut off your production of melatonin, which is the hormone that makes you sleepy,” he says. (That’s also why you shouldn’t do these things within an hour of bedtime. In fact, shutting down these electronics a while before getting into bed can help keep your sleep/wake schedule on track, so you feel more lively during the day.)

2. Don’t slack on exercise.

“Anything that increases your metabolism is going to help you feel more alert, and that includes getting your heart rate up and your blood flowing with exercise,” says Reisinger. Physical activity can also release feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins. In fact, some studies have found that exercise can be as effective as medication at relieving mild depression.

3. Think about the root cause

Sometimes, a seasonal funk is a symptom of another problem, Reisinger says. “People who get depressed during the winter are often seasonal workers whose jobs disappear, or people who have to give up outdoor sports or whose whole lifestyle changes during the winter for some reason,” he says. It’s worth doing a gut-check to see if there might be this kind of underlying cause for your mood, because then you can start to think about finding a real solution.

On the other hand, if your mood takes a steep dive every winter, Reisinger recommends mentioning it to your doctor. It’s possible you have something called seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD); another possibility is that the lack of sunlight has triggered a circadian rhythm disorder, disrupting your sleep patterns and playing havoc with your emotions. In either case, seeing a psychologist or sleep specialist may help you feel better—without waiting until spring.