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Essentia Health tips to ward off winter blues

"Winter depression is very common in the United States, with a documented 3 percent of people actually seeking treatment," says Psychologist Nicole Fleming. "In Minnesota, that number is upped to 11 percent. Know you are not alone and many people need to have help to get them through the darker months of the year." Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

It's dark in the morning when you go to work, and it's dark in the evening when you return. It's cold, and often, snowing. The weather this time of year wreaks havoc on our roads, our homes, our cars, and even our minds.

"Winter depression is very common in the United States, with a documented 3 percent of people actually seeking treatment," says Psychologist Nicole Fleming. "In Minnesota, that number is upped to 11 percent."

Many people want to go home after work, change into pajamas and curl up with a good book. But a lack of physical activity, combined with cravings for comfort foods, can actually perpetuate depression.

"We get a lot of nutrients from the foods we eat, as well as sunlight, so when it's cold and dark we crave pastas and sugars, then we put on weight and feel more depressed," Fleming says.

Fleming suggests people take advantage of frozen fruits and whip up healthy smoothies to beat the blahs. Switch out a work night casserole for a healthy salad. Physicians also suggests taking a vitamin B and D supplement.

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One in ten people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder.

Know the symptoms so you can seek help, if needed. Common symptoms of SAD include fatigue, even with too much sleep, and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings. SAD symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include many symptoms similar to major depression, such as:

  • Feeling of sadness or depressed mood
  • Marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite; usually eating more, craving carbohydrates
  • Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
  • Increase in restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide

SAD may begin at any age, but it typically starts when a person is between ages 18 and 30.

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"Ideally, we'd all love to take a tropical vacation this time of year, but many of us depleted our checking accounts in January paying off holiday bills, which makes us even more depressed," adds Fleming. She suggests shopping around for great hotel deals this time of year, when rates are low. "One night in a hotel hot tub or pool, even experiencing maid service can really make a difference."

If a night away is not an option, Fleming suggests having your neighbors over for dinner. "We often isolate ourselves in the wintertime, and over time, that can also lead to a deeper depression," she adds.

Physical exercise can do wonders to lift your spirits, but when it's 25 below zero, not a lot of us want to leave the house. Fleming says walking indoors, at the mall for example, is a good way to get your steps in. She also stresses exercise doesn't have to always mean heading to the gym.

"Park farther away from the grocery store. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Just get your body moving." If you can hold yourself accountable by having a workout partner or friend, that helps as well.

"I also tell my clients to check out free events in their community," says Fleming. "Look into a community education class. Many are just $15 and you can learn a new hobby in one night."

So, when do the winter blahs require professional attention? Fleming says when the blues interfere with doing the regular routine things in your life, you likely need to see a professional.

"Know you are not alone and many people need to have help to get them through the darker months of the year," Fleming says.

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