Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seasonality: Energy and Mood in the Winter

As the days grow progressively shorter, my body and mind protest.  I never really have enough energy, but it seems to be in particularly short supply during the winter months.  And when the world around me begins to buzz in cheerful anticipation of the holiday season, I prefer to stay at home.  I used to revel in the spirit of Christmas.  Then, my grandmother died in 2003, just a week after Christmas.  For me -- and for much of my family -- my grandmother was Christmas.  She led the family festivities every year.  It was her holdiay.  Now, I miss her terribly and grieve her most during the Christmas season.  When I feel her absence so acutely I begin to wonder if I'll see her again someday, when my life is over.  Then I start thinking about death.  This leads me down a path of rather morbid thoughts; I end up feeling depressed.

Of course, I'm not the only one who struggles with mood and energy during the winter.  Studies suggest that approximately 10% of American adults experience negative changes in their mood and energy during the winter months that are significant enough to interfere with daily functioning. 

When a person has a history of feeling tired and depressed every winter, he eventually comes to expect it.  He may begin to anticipate the onset of depression and fatigue at the end of summer, long before any symptoms are present.  He begins to monitor his mood and energy level more closely, vigilantly looking for even very slight changes to either.  His hyper-vigilance makes him more sensitive to fluctuations in mood or energy, causing him to notice changes that others probably would not.  (Perhaps he notices changes that even he would not notice if they took place in the spring or summer).  Thus, if he wakes up one November morning feeling a bit down, he might see it as a sign of worse things to come.  "Well, here it is again," he might say to himself.  "Now I'll be depressed until spring comes around."  It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. 

This is just part of the story; there are a number of factors that cause a person to feel depressed when the seasons change.  Still, one's thoughts and beliefs can contribute signficantly to the maintenance of such problems.  This has been the subject of growing interest to mental health professionals in recent years.  Reading some of the literature helped me to identify some of my own unhelpful beliefs about mood and energy during winter.  I thought I'd share some of the more common unhelpful beliefs (taken from the "Seasonal Beliefs Questionnaire"):

"I am worried about how bad I will feel this winter."
"I am dreading the next few months."
"No one else feels this way every year."
"I'm going to be depressed until spring."
"I need sunshine to feel happy."
"Dark, gloomy days are depressing."
"The weather should not affect me."

Even if your mood and energy have tended to change with the seasons in the past, it doesn't have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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  2. I fight the seasonal affective disorder with lots of outdoor activities. I do notice my circadian rhythm is well off in the winter however.

    What else are you going to do? May as well make the most of each and every day.

    My Grandfather died right before Christmas and it has killed me in some small fashion. I recall with fond memory my Grandfather. He was my role model and I am just a shadow of the man he once was although I know he would be very proud of me.

    Merry Christmas,


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