As we approach the end of March, the slow journey toward spring and sunshine can seem to stop in its tracks.  Crocuses and tulips poke up out of the ground, only to be blanketed by yet another layer of fresh white snow. We’ve turned the clocks ahead, leaving room for some surprising extra light at dinnertime – but getting up in the dark seems harder now than it did in January.

Our responses to the long winters of our home state can include emotional, behavioral, or even physical changes. These can manifest as various symptoms of the “winter blues,” which include everything from a slight change in sleep and eating patterns, to full-blown depression. How can you tell the difference, and what can you do about it?

(Courtesy photo)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a recurring depression that is brought on by seasonal changes. The most common form begins with the decrease in daylight in the late fall and winter, and goes away as spring light increases. Symptoms may include:

– Irritability
– Increased desire for sleep and carbohydrates
– Anxiety
– Loss of energy
– Difficulty focusing
– Headaches

SAD can have a significant and negative impact on functioning at work and at home.

The “winter blues”
The winter blues are a milder form of seasonal depression. They may bring some symptoms similar to SAD, but they resolve more quickly. Sometimes the blues can be triggered by something specific, such as the holidays. Sometimes they are just the blues.

Some factors that can contribute to feeling the “winter blues,” even in early spring, include:

– Loss (of activities you enjoy, spontaneity, sunlight, warmth)
– Risks to safety
– Extended darkness
– Inactivity
– Isolation
– Negative expectations
– Absence of color
– More time indoors
– Serotonin decrease
-Melatonin increase
– Less available Vitamin D
– Predisposition to depression

What can we do to feel better?
Now that we’ve put names to the things we might be feeling, let’s brainstorm some ways to counteract them.

–  First, recognize and respect your feelings of sadness. Talk to a trusted friend or counselor.
– Develop a new winter ritual or hobby
– Bring something to life in your home: a window box, herbs in the kitchen, a fish tank
– Keep your shades open as much as you can
– Get outside in the midday sun – bundle up!
– Sit by the window and read or do a craft, rather than watching TV or using the computer
– Try full-spectrum lights in some fixtures
– Talk to your physician about light therapy 

Another strategy: Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness involves being aware of our present experience with an attitude of openness, compassion and acceptance. It is cultivated through the practice of mindfulness meditation, but can be used in everyday situations to enhance our sense of vitality, increase our self-understanding, and help us better manage difficult experiences. Mindfulness means being aware and present; it’s an attitude with intention, openness, acceptance and compassion; it’s an attitude without judgment. Mindfulness is not just relaxing, not caring, or avoiding thoughts or feelings.

Try being fully present, fully aware of what you are doing, instead of being on auto-pilot. Smell the mud under the melting snow, notice the look and feel of your first iced coffee of the spring.

When you are having a strong emotional reaction, take a moment to simply notice that reaction, and any other thoughts, feelings, or sensations that might accompany it – observe yourself without judgment so you can fully feel, without needing to act.