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Beating the winter blues

We often think of winter as a cheerful and festive time of the year to look forward to: a season full of joyous celebrations, quality family time, presents, food and so much more. And while all that’s undeniably true, this bitterly cold season can also cause a lot of people to feel, well, bitter.

“During the cold, dark and gloomy winter days when many individuals spend more time indoors and are less physically active, some may experience the ‘winter blues,’” said West Chester psychiatrist, neurologist and Director of the TMS Institute of Pennsylvania, Dr. Terrence A. Boyadjis. “Winter blues are quite common (seen in approx. 10-15 percent of the US population) and symptoms include sadness, lethargy, decreased energy and interest.”

Although similar, winter blues are not the same as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and it’s important to distinguish the differences between the two.

“The symptoms [of winter blues] are mild and do NOT significantly impair one’s quality of life and functioning,” said Dr. Boyadjis. “Professional treatment is usually not necessary.”

“Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) on the other hand is a depressive disorder which potentially has far more serious consequences with significant impairment,” he said.

According to Dr. Boyadjis, signs and symptoms of SAD include:

  • Sleeping too much (hypersomnia)
  • Eating too much (hyperphagia)
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities (anhedonia)
  • Depressed mood most days for their entirety
  • Hopelessness and a sense of worthlessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Cognitive impairment with difficulty focusing and making decisions
  • Feeling tired and lethargic, despite excessive sleeping

“SAD occurs in about 5 percent of the population and is more common in women vs. men,” said Dr. Boyadjis. He added that it occurs most often between the ages of 18 and 30, but can occur at any age.

This disorder is severe and should be taken seriously. “The individuals should consult with a psychiatrist,” he said. “Treatment can include talk therapy (especially cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT]), antidepressant medication and light therapy.”

The causes of winter blues and SAD are fairly similar. Geography and climate are significant factors of each. “Affected individuals more likely live in northern climates,” said Dr. Boyadjis. The further from the equator—the colder, darker and longer the winters get.

“Both SAD and winter blues occur in late fall or winter. Both are believed to occur secondary to decreased sunlight during the winter months, subsequently causing a biochemical imbalance in the brain and decreased serotonin levels,” he said. “Disrupted circadian rhythm and decreased melatonin are also felt to play a causative role.”

For those who might be experiencing symptoms of either winter blues or SAD, there are counseling and psychological services available right on campus for free that are dedicated to helping students overcome these kinds of obstacles.

Therapy dogs will also be on campus in the main lobby of Sykes on Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 5:30-7:30 PM, Thursday, Dec. 6, between 12-2 PM and again from 6:30-8 PM.

Dr. Boyadjis recommended several other fairly simple things that people can do to help manage symptoms. “Exercise, a healthy diet, avoiding stress, adequate sleep, and avoiding excess alcohol and drug use, all may be helpful for both winter blues, as well as SAD,” said Dr. Boyadjis.

Emily Drossman is a fourth-year student English Writings major who minors in journalism. ED843805@wcupa.edu

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