THE LAST WORD: Cold, dark can brew winter of discontent, depression

Kerry Hubartt

Say what you will about winter, most people I have talked to in the last couple of weeks have had enough.

I realize many love winter weather, and I normally tolerate it pretty well. But I have definitely developed a bad attitude recently about this year’s seemingly endless cold, ice, snow and relentless wind.

Looking back on local temperatures since Jan. 1, I was a bit surprised that this winter hasn’t been nearly as cold as I thought. It’s just been crazy. We’ve jumped from highs in the 50s down to zero in January. And 14 days in February were 40 degrees or higher (59 at one point), and only 10 other days were 32 or less.

So far this month the highs have averaged just over 28 degrees. But the cold snap last Monday through Wednesday pulled that average down, and seemed to trigger my own bad attitude about the weather as temperatures ranged from lows of 8-10 to highs of 16-25.

For me, the wind has compounded the cold, making every day seem worse than it was. And we’ve had snow, freezing rain, more snow, another round of freezing rain — not that terribly much, just one thing after another.

Still, none of it has been that bad. So why am I and others complaining so much, and seemingly so desperate for warmer weather and spring flowers?

It seems it’s largely an emotional/mental thing. Winter depression is a real result of humans dealing with the colder weather and the shorter periods of sunshine from November through March.

You start your day in the dark. You come home from work, and it’s dark. And in between it’s cold and gray. Wind, ice and snow can just compound a mixture that brews discontent — and that can range from the winter blues to downright depression.

Although there is no actual clinical diagnosis, the National Institutes of Health says “winter blues” are fairly common, “usually marked by feeling more down than usual, sad or less energized.”

Research by everydayhealth.com shows that since the winter blues is not a discrete medical condition, we really don’t know how many people are affected by it. The website cited estimates that suggest from 14 to 20 percent of adults in the U.S. say they experience such seasonal mood changes.

The National Sleep Institute says symptoms of the winter blues — or SAD (seasonal affective disorder) — include “feeling down, irritable or low on energy or craving sweet or starchy foods or sleeping more or less than usual.”

WebMD says researchers agree that people who suffer from winter blues are all sensitive to the lack of light. And let’s face it, winter has a lot less sunlight than the rest of the year. Think about those poor souls who live in Alaska, where the shortest period of daylight in the winter for Anchorage, for example, is 5 hours and 29 minutes.

WebMD cites studies that have shown people with seasonal affective disorder feel better after exposure to bright light. So, here’s tip No. 1: “Replace lost sunlight with bright artificial light, and your mood improves.” Or try to sit by a bright window or go out for a walk during the day.

Here are some other tips suggested for battling the winter blues: Stick with a healthy diet, and stay active. Unfortunately, when we get depressed by the weather, we often eat too much and grab snacks we shouldn’t. And we tend to stay on the couch and watch TV.

Yes, the weather is getting better — it’s supposed to go from the low 40s to the low 60s between Tuesday and Thursday.

So lighten up, literally, by getting as much light around you as you can, both natural and artificial, and brightening your mood by taking intentional steps away from habits and idleness that simply add to the blahs you are feeling.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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