Dealing with Winter Time Depression

January 20, 2016

Charles Hodges

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Charles Hodges

Depending on where you live on our planet, winter can mean more pleasant sunny days, or it can bring three months of cold gray gloom! For reasons only my ancestors know, I live on the gloomy side of winter in Indiana. My earliest childhood memories of winter seemed to be mostly in black and white, because for days the sun just didn’t shine. And, while I have not suffered anything near a DSM-5 defined depression, the grayness of winter holds little joy for me. My mood shifts with the sunshine. I suspect that is true for many of us.

Research tells us that perhaps one person in six in far northern cities will deal with a depressed mood when days are really short and the nights long.[1] This applies to places like Fairbanks (Alaska), Glasgow (Scotland), and the Scandinavian countries. In the United States, from 4 to 6 percent of our people deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.[2] Of course those in Fargo probably struggle with it more than those in Key West!

The deciding factor in whether or not people will struggle with SAD seems to be how much light they see in 24 hours. Research published in May 2015 indicated that those who had 16 hours of sunshine a day were far less likely to exhibit depressed behavior than those who only saw 8 hours of light.[3] This fits our clinical observations. So how can we deal with this as individuals who crave light and as counselors who help those crave it as well?

First for us as biblical counselors, SAD reminds us that not everyone who presents with a sad mood is in counseling because of being caught in the grip of a specific sin. These counselees do not have a loss in their lives that would result in normal sadness, nor do they have a pattern of sinful living that should cause a sad mood. Instead, they are a good example of how a physical problem can impact one’s mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder is at the intersection where physical and spiritual issues meet.

Knowing this can mean a great deal to the winter-time struggler. It makes a difference if my sad mood is something that will lift in 90 days or less as opposed to being a permanent oppression! It also makes a difference to know that there is a brain-based reason for me to feel like this. It frees us to respond in a biblical way to a mostly physical problem.

There are many ways that those of us who struggle with the winter blues can help ourselves. In two weeks, I will leave this miserable winter climate for a sunnier Orlando, Florida, for a meeting. I have always found that a week on the beach does a lot to remind me that winter will end eventually. I have told patients who consistently struggle with SAD that they should consider moving south for the winter or the whole year.

Current treatment for SAD includes medication, light therapy, and counseling.[4] Light therapy comes in many forms and is beyond the scope of this blog. I will avoid giving medical advice and simply encourage individuals to discuss medical care with their physician.

In addition, doing everything possible to get 7 to 8 hours of good sleep every night is valuable. Daily walks outside are felt to be helpful even when the sun isn’t shining. Aerobic exercise is always useful. I suspect my running at lunch time has always helped me make it through Indiana winters. Improved indoor lighting helps. When I am home, I spend a lot of time turning the lights on that my wife turns off. Patients who spend a little more money on electricity for lighting may spend less time in their doctors’ offices. Putting a timer on a light in the bedroom so that it turns on each morning before the alarm also seems to help. All of this is connected to the brain’s wake/sleep cycle; it is important to maintain a normal wake/sleep cycle.

Counseling for believers should be aimed at glorifying God in the middle of a trial. All of us eventually face medical problems that are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and at times expensive. In that experience, God intends to use the trial to shape us into the image of his son. He also gives opportunities to serve others out of our struggle. Paul provides an example of a man with a physical struggle that would not go away. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he said that he had a “thorn in the flesh,” and that three times he asked God to remove it. And three times God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). The person who struggles with SAD is in a similar situation for 3 months a year. And, during those three months, God’s grace is available to help.

[1] European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, “Biochemical Cause of Seasonal Depression (SAD) Confirmed by Researchers.” Science Daily, 20 October 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141020212412.htm.

[2] Vanderbilt University, “Locating the Brain’s SAD Center,” ScienceDaily, 7 May 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150507122659.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Information retrieved electronically from UptoDate.com, “Seasonal Affective Disorder: Treatment” (retrieved 1/14/2016).