Currently it’s -24C in Edmonton right now, with sunshine for approximately 34 minutes each day, so this guest post from Joshua Reed couldn’t come at a more pertinent time.
“I don’t know what my deal is. The last week or so I’ve just been so exhausted and….blah. Did I also mention that I hate the cold?”
A little background on the client. Let’s call her Sally.
Sally and I met over the summer. She is a 24-year old nurse and is highly energetic. She loves hiking, is always early to our sessions, and is always optimistic. The last couple of weeks, she has been a completely different individual. Sally had missed several in-person sessions, she lacked confidence, didn’t want to leave the house, preferred laying around, and her food cravings had lead to weight gain. The interesting part is that there appears to be no stress taking place in either her personal nor work life.
Yet, a couple of things quickly stood out.
Throughout the session, she mentioned her hate for the winter months and her overall sense of depression made me think that her sudden mood change was related to the change in season. Recently, the temperature plummeted as fast as Obama dropped his mic during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
I don’t know anyone who is not bummed about the cold weather and the short dark days of winter as the sun sets before 5pm.
Want my advice?
Buy a second home in the Caribbean and work remotely while sipping from an umbrella-clad tumbler from November-March. Unless, of course, you are affected with seasonal depression during the summer, then you should buy a house in Antarctica. If this is an option, you can stop reading. If either is NOT an option, I’d recommend learning more about seasonal affective disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a type of depression where one experiences depressive episodes during a particular season every year. Most of us are familiar with this type of depression as the winter months emerge. The “winter blues” as many of us know these months as, is a subsyndromal type of SAD. Subsyndromal SAD is a lesser form of SAD, whereas, other individuals can be severely debilitated. Less often, SAD can take place over the non-winter months as well1. Do note, there is yet to be any specific cures for seasonal affective disorder, although preventative action is key.
What are some symptoms of SAD?
Individuals with seasonal affective disorder may experience a variety of symptoms. As a personal trainer, it is important for me to recognize such symptoms to discuss with a client. This will help the client live a more fulfilling lifestyle both inside and outside the gym. Such symptoms may consist of feeling “sad, irritable, and may cry frequently; and they are tired and lethargic, have difficulty concentrating, sleep more than normal, lack energy, decrease their activity levels, withdraw from social situations, crave carbohydrates and sugars, and tend to gain weight due to overeating.1” Those for whom SAD affects them during the summer months appears to have differing symptoms. Instead of having cravings, he or she may have poor appetite, insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and even violent behavior according to some studies. In extreme cases, as with any depressive disorder, suicidal thoughts may be present.
Some of the symptoms above were similar to Sally’s change in mood and behavior. One specific paragraph that struck me while researching this topic, was that SAD occurs 4x more often in women between the ages of 18 and 30 years and is more common in nurses and other health professionals who perform shift work due to the limited exposure to sunlight. In addition, it is also common in individuals with a history of depression or bipolar disorder. Though women are more likely to develop SAD, it appears men can have more serious symptoms1.
Please note, I am not diagnosing Sally as that is out of any individual’s scope of practice whom is not qualified to do so. My goal is to only be familiar with such an issue in order to bring it to light so that she may seek further assistance if some of the below mentioned preventative tips would not assist her.
5 Preventative Tips to Avoid Feeling Blue During the Winter
There is no getting around this one.
Most of those who read Dean’s blog regularly, already know that exercise is critical. Not only does it create a leaner and stronger physique, but also reduces anxiety and improves mood. Therefore, exercise not only promotes physical benefits, but also psychological.
Literature shows that those who exercised in the gym 2-3 times per week for 8-weeks in bright light (2500-4000 lx), saw a decrease in SAD symptoms2. These individuals had greater relief from depressive symptoms and more energy than in an ordinary lit room. When examining the effects of exercise with respect to depression disorder, exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for those suffering with both minor and major depression3.
For those with depression, the idea of getting out there and getting in a full session might feel difficult. Therefore, it is important to find ways for the individual to increase physical activity overall. Instead of lying on the couch all day watching Netflix, he or she should perform small amounts of physical activity from a variety of tasks that keep them active throughout the day. Examples of these activities may include performing various household chores like cleaning, yard work, laundry, and so forth.
Even going for a simple walk each day may make all the difference. A Harvard study found that mild and moderate depression symptoms were improved significantly if an individual were to walk fast for 35 minutes a day for five days4.
Light therapy, also known as Bright Light Therapy (BLT) or phototherapy, makes sense if one is affected by being in the light less. Therefore, by introducing more light, SAD symptoms would decrease. This notion has been researched significantly, and many researchers recommend purchasing a light box and sitting in front of it each morning for several weeks.
One research article shows that light boxes are best when you to have “20-60 minutes of exposure with 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light daily during fall and winter”5. However, they did find that immediate improvement in mood was detected after the first session as short as 20 minutes and that 40 minutes was not less effective than 60 minutes of exposure.
Vitamin D supplementation, the sunshine vitamin, has been considered a factor in numerous treatment options, as individuals with depression often have an insufficiency in Vitamin D6. For those with SAD, this could be due to the decreased exposure to sunlight during the winter months, along with an insufficient intake. One study found that even when controlling for other factors, in winter months, female subjects with SAD had lower levels of vitamin D37.
If you are not in the sunlight much during the winter months and your dietary intake lacks foods like “fish, cod liver oil, mushrooms, liver, and eggs”8, vitamin D supplementation might be advisable. If you believe you might be insufficient in vitamin D, I would recommend having your levels checked first.
Get outdoors and travel more? Whether you have SAD or not, you should already be doing this step as well as step #1: exercise. There is too much to see and do.
It is safe to say that if SAD is linked to less sun, then those winter travel plans need to be somewhere warm. More specifically, your travel plans should not include anywhere 33 degrees north or 30 degrees south of the equator9. An article by Webb et al., found that the synthesis of vitamin D3 is affected by the latitude and season as the solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface differs dramatically.
Your travel plans should also not include going somewhere to sit around. Moral of the story, choose your destination and activities wisely while you soak up some sun. If you can plan an outdoor trip during for your winter months, try to do so before winter hits and you lose your motivation.
Last, but not least, talk about it. More common than not, individuals with SAD isolate themselves rather than discuss their problems with peers10.
There is a great deal of research examining the benefits of counselling1. Counselling is a great way to help individuals with SAD by providing both support and assistance with problems the individual might be having. For example, a counselor might alter the negative mindset associated with the winter months being cold and dreary.
Each time Sally made it to her session, she felt much better. For starters, we know that exercise is great for physical and mental health. Secondly, many are unaware of this unless you are in the industry or you are a client, but personal trainers make great counselors as well. Upon recognizing Sally’s symptoms, I made it a point to check in on her via texts and emails. I also made it a point to schedule 10-15 minutes before and after each session so that we could merely chat. I knew that if I could have her chatting before the session, she would have a more efficient workout. I also knew that if I had her leaving on good terms, the rest of her day was set. In addition, we got her to increase her social interaction as she began attending small group personal training with three other individuals.
For those with a more serious case of SAD, it is highly recommended that one seeks medical attention as medications like anti-depressants may be prescribed.
Fortunately, SAD is one of the most treatable forms of depressions. If the “winter blues” or SAD has gotten you down, don’t let it ruin the holidays, your winter, and ESPECIALLY your workout! Act now with the above-mentioned steps and enjoy life year round!
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