The winter blues

Carolyn Sperry

Winter can be a rough time, especially in northern climates. Short days offer less light, and cold temperatures mean outdoor activities are probably at a minimum.

It’s common to feel a little let down once the holidays are over -- especially if you come out of the holiday season with a couple of extra pounds and a large credit card bill.

If you’re in a funk this winter, what can you do to snap out of it, and make the most of those short days?

1. Exercise

Whether you’re just in a bad mood from being cooped up or you actually do have mild depression, exercising can help make you feel better. Getting back to your normal exercise routine -- or starting a new one -- is key to keeping your mood on track. If you live in the Snow Belt, you’re walking on a great opportunity: snowboarding, skiing (downhill or cross country) and snow-shoeing are all great calorie-burners. If you’ve fallen off the exercise wagon completely, remember to start off slowly -- you don’t want to “burn yourself out” by trying to do too much, too fast.

2. Get back to a healthy diet

The holidays are a time when many of us throw our usual regimens out the window, preferring to indulge in goodies and cocktails, and letting the “holiday spirit” creep into just about every meal -- having pumpkin muffins instead of our usual breakfasts, for example. Then, the dark days of winter can leave us craving more starches and sugars, and we can get stuck in a loop of overeating this type of food, which can leave us tired and irritable. Try a protein-rich breakfast, and make sure you have plenty of fruits and vegetables prepped for when you’re in the mood for a snack. If you have favorite winter indulgences like macaroni and cheese, make sure they’re an occasional splurge and search the Web for lightened-up recipes.

3. Know when to get help

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where sadness ends and depression begins. If every winter you experience a need for more sleep, as well as daytime fatigue, irritability, decreased concentration, decreased sex drive, and/or an increased appetite -- especially for sweets and starchy carbohydrates -- those could be symptoms of Seasonal Af- fective Disorder, says Dr. Jason Luoma, a Portland, Ore., psychologist with extensive experience in SAD.

“The main red flag to seek professional help is when these symptoms start to interfere with your normal activities, such as family participation, friendships, work, leisure activities or exercise,” he says.

SAD is different from the “winter blues” in that symptoms are more severe and last for several weeks or months. Visit a physician if you are depressed and have never sought out professional help; some depression is caused by treatable medical issues.

If you choose to use a dawn simulator or light therapy device, do your research, cautions Luoma -- some types are much more effective than others.