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February Blues and Depression

Owl on an icy branch

I designated February as Self-Care Month here at Messy Desk because it is often a difficult month for people on this side of the planet. According to WebMD, over 11 million people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and many of the rest of us have a less severe case of the winter blues, officially called subsyndromal SAD.

Winter mood-related issues probably happen in response to the lack of sunlight when days are shorter. In 2009, an overview of more than 20 studies combined found that SAD is much more common for people living farthest from the equator. In one U.S. study, only 1% of Floridians but 9% of Alaskans reported SAD symptoms. The winter blues is even more prevalent, with 15% of Canadians reporting that they experience the blues, while 2-6% experience SAD.

I can attest to the fact that moving south has helped the winters be less of a downer for me. My sister has found south Florida even better. My brother in northern Indiana? He barely answers the phone in winter. And, yes, seasonal depression, like any kind of depression, runs in families.

Low mood and energy levels are the main symptoms of SAD. People may feel irritable, have a hard time concentrating, and cry frequently. They are tired and are less active than usual. They also sleep more, withdraw from social situations, crave carbohydrates, and gain weight. People with full-on SAD can be completely incapacitated with depression, even to the point of having suicidal thoughts. Those with the winter blues have milder symptoms.

What causes these winter mood issues biochemically? The National Institute of Mental Health names three factors:

  1. Difficulty with regulating serotonin, a key brain chemical involved in mood;

  2. Overproduction of melatonin, which regulates sleep;

  3. Underproduction of Vitamin D.

Counseling, medication for seratonin regulation, vitamin D supplementation, and light therapy are the most recommended treatments for SAD. Exercise, healthy food, and positive self-talk are other supportive lifestyle changes.

Psychotherapy is very important for people with depression. In addition to traditional talk therapy, there is a specific type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy adapted for use with SAD (CBT-SAD). Research indicates that CBT-SAD and light therapy both work equally well, but CBT-SAD may have more long-lasting effects for future winters.

Anti-depressant medications help regulate serotonin and can work wonders, but they do have side effects. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and drawbacks of any medication. You may also have to try a number of different prescriptions before finding the one that works best for you; don't give up on your first try.

There is some debate on whether Vitamin D supplements are effective for SAD but I have read many studies on the vitamin/hormone, and I would recommend supplementation for anyone who a) lives in a cold climate; b) doesn't get out into the sun for at least 15 minutes a day; or c) is careful to apply sunscreen whenever they are outside. The Harvard School of Public Health also calls for supplementation. They describe Vitamin D deficiency as "a global concern" that "may increase the risk of a host of chronic diseases, such as osteoporosis, heart disease, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis, as well as infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and even the flu." Recent studies indicate that Vitamin D supplementation increases serotonin concentrations and may help symptoms of depression. Since people with SAD often have low levels of Vitamin D in their blood, taking a Vitamin D supplement is good for general health, even if it doesn't cure SAD on its own.

Light box therapy has also been found to be effective for all types of depression, not just winter-related SAD. The Mayo Clinic provides useful guidelines for choosing and using a light therapy box. Generally, light therapy boxes should emit 10,000 lux of light and as little UV as possible. the boxes are about 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor lights. Light therapy works best if practiced first thing in the morning for at least 20-30 minutes, starting in fall and continuing until spring.

For a mild case of the blues, a vacation in a sunny place can make February much more bearable. In fact, when this post goes live, I will be on a cruise ship with my sister, heading for Central America. That, for me, is the ultimate in self-care. I will do some judicious sun-bathing, have some family time, and visit places I've never been to before. I will also be taking my vitamin D supplements.


One of the things that people "let go" during the winter blahs is home organization. When you come back from that sunny vacation or are ready for spring cleaning, remember that Messy Desk Consulting can help. We don't bully you into throwing away things you love; we just help you find a happy balance that fits your life and your personal style. Email marie.jones@messydeskconsulting to schedule a free initial coaching session and learn more about virtual home organization coaching.

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