Keep a sunny outlook over the dark winter months

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, November 15, 2007

Darkness has been stealing into our days at an increasingly earlier hour. This, of course, happens every year. And, every year, I am reminded of the irony that, with the preparation for and celebration of winter holidays, we have to do more and more with less and less time. To make matters worse, we often feel confined by the cold that clings to the days and chases us indoors. Unfortunately for many of us, the darkness, cold, and isolation usher in the winter blues.

You know you are suffering from the winter blues when you feel like you have more in common with a hibernating bear than just about anyone else. You feel tired and just want to be left alone. In addition, you probably feel sad, anxious, and irritable. And, as if that is not enough, you might be really hungry, especially for those wonderfully comforting (and oh-so-bad-for-you) cookies or candy—which, of course, leads to the dreaded winter weight gain.

If this sounds familiar, at least take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. But, if these symptoms are so bad that they make it difficult to get through the day, then you might have a more serious problem than the blues. You might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD—as apt an acronym as you’re likely to find). It is a problem experienced by about four to six people in every hundred. If you think you could have SAD, then consult with a mental health care professional to assess and treat your condition.

Whether you are suffering from the winter blues or from SAD, you can help yourself by attending to three areas: light exposure, lifestyle, and emotional issues.

Light exposure: Some of the most effective methods for alleviating the winter blues and SAD involve increasing your exposure to light. Below are some suggestions for how to do this.

• Spend at least 30 minutes outside every day, even when it is cloudy. You will benefit most from going outside midday, when the light is the strongest. Although most of us know that we feel better with a little time outside, we often just don’t do anything about it, especially in the winter. So, if you want to feel better, GET OUT THERE.

• Try bright light therapy, which is exposure to artificial light that is brighter than usual home or office lighting. You can help alleviate your winter blues or SAD by sitting under this special light for 30 minutes every morning. This treatment has impressive results, relieving symptoms for about two thirds of people with seasonal affective disorder. To learn more about light therapy, check out the websites for the Center for Environmental Therapeutics ( and the Society for Light Treatment & Biological Rhythms (

• Keep your home and office well lit with regular lamps and fixtures.

• Use a timer to turn a light on in your bedroom in the morning. Consider using a dawn simulator for a more naturalistic artificial dawn. To learn more about this, look at the websites listed above.

Lifestyle: While I don’t expect that advice about how to create a healthy lifestyle is breaking news for you, I have found that most of us don’t consistently follow it. Also, although maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be difficult any time of year, winter creates special challenges, such as encouraging us to stay indoors, remain sedentary, be relatively isolated, and have an appetite for carbohydrates. So, pay particular attention to the following advice during the fall and winter months:

• Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week. Consider taking brisk walks outside—they can provide you with daylight as well as exercise. If you have trouble motivating yourself, consider the advice of the great philosopher, Nike: Just Do It!

• Eat a well-balanced diet. This will give you the energy you need in your day while reducing your body’s craving for sweets and starches. Again, it’s not enough to just know this, you have to do it.

• Remain or become socially active. Social relationships can be supportive and keep you connected when you are inclined to isolate from the world. Consider meeting with a friend for your walks. Not only will you feel less depressed and alone, but research shows that people with healthy relationships are less susceptible to colds and are less likely to die from serious medical problems such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer.

• Plan activities you enjoy to help you maintain a positive attitude. Hopefully, once you get started, you will be naturally motivated to do more.

Emotional issues: Difficult emotions are often stirred up during the holidays and can exacerbate the winter blues and SAD. So, be sure to pay attention to what is making you feel down. Consider whether the holidays tend to aggravate family squabbles or trigger negative memories. If you are sad or feel distressed about such issues, you need to address them directly.

• Manage unavoidable family problems during the holidays. Do this by limiting time with those who make you truly unhappy. Also, avoid conversations that you know will be upsetting. This might mean resolving to limit interactions with, say, your sister or mother-in-law. Such a decision would require you to accept the less than ideal nature of that relationship. Although this might be at odds with the harmonious relationship you would prefer, it can keep a difficult situation from becoming worse. In addition to directly managing such problems, seek out emotional support from a friend or sympathetic relative.

• Work on finding peace with “hot” issues so that they have less of a grip on your mental state. Give yourself time to think about these issues, perhaps even journaling about them. You might also want to talk with a supportive friend or a professional therapist. However, limit that time and then follow it up with focusing, instead, on more positive parts of your life. So, for instance, allow yourself to be angry with your father’s critical comments, but then focus on the loving relationship you have with your spouse.

• Use the suggestions in the above sections to help you feel better so that you can cope more effectively with emotionally distressing issues.

If all of this advice is overwhelming, decide on one of the three areas you would benefit most by attending to: light exposure, lifestyle, or emotional issues. Then focus on just one or two suggestions at a time. As you see some results, you’ll find it easier to move on to addressing the other areas. With your continued efforts and time, the good feelings will eventually snowball into a happier winter.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ