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Keeping the winter blues at bay: Perham woman talks about her battle with Seasonal Affective Disorder

The cold winter weather is an aggravating factor of Seasonal Affective Disorder, as people resist getting out, getting sunlight and staying active. (Carter Jones / Focus)1 / 2
John and Jan Turgeon walk at the PACC on Tuesday morning. "We have hobby's but we walk all winter," Jan said. (Carter Jones / FOCUS) 2 / 2

While the days are getting longer, the temps aren't getting any higher. Even the most avid winter fanatics are feeling burnt out. When winter bottoms out around this time of year, it's important to be aware of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and how to pick things up until brighter days.

SAD is a recurring major depression that typically occurs in the fall through winter, according to Dr. Gail Pickett at Perham Health. The specific seasonal pattern separates SAD from recurring depression that might happen year round, Pickett said.

SAD sufferers slow down and can't wake up in the morning. Their energy level decreases and concentration suffers as well. People with SAD report sleeping an average of 2 ½ hours more in winter than in the summer, compared to the general population. Studies suggest about 11 percent of Minnesotans, Alaskans and Norwegians suffer from SAD, while only two percent of Floridians are impacted. While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, evidence strongly suggests that it's set off by changes in available sunlight, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One theory is that with less exposure to sunlight, the internal biological clock that regulates mood, sleep and hormones is shifted.

Even when it's really cold, Pickett recommends standing outside for five to ten minutes and absorbing whatever sun is available. "A lot of times, people close the drapes and stay indoors," Pickett said. "You gotta not do that. You need to open up the windows and stand outside. Even the dreary days that last for weeks, you gotta get out and get something."

Pickett said it's important to get help as soon as things don't feel right because people with depression are often too slow to access help. A quick rule of thumb is to get up, get dressed and get out, Pickett said. "At least get outside the door and out in the world," she said. "It'll suck you in and you might not get out until who knows when."

Rhonda Moenkedick, a Perham resident, was diagnosed with SAD over 20 years ago.

"It's really hard to be happy sometimes," she said. "It's a down, down time of year." Over the years, Moenkedick said she's tried different prescriptions but didn't respond well. She was also hesitant to start therapy because she didn't like leaving the house, but that eventually helped a little. Moenkedick said her pets have been quite a help getting her through the winter. She also enjoys journaling and said yoga has improved her outlook.

After Halloween, Moenkedick said she feels tired and fatigued when the days get drearier. When spring rolls around she feels hopeful when she's able to open windows and not feel closed inside.

SAD sufferers also feel strain with personal relationships. Moenkedick said she definitely feels more irritable around her husband and teenage daughter during the winter. "There's more tension between us," she said. "I don't want to be bothered and we feel cooped up with each other."

When living with someone with SAD, Dr. Pickett said to be as honest as possible. "Let them know they're not themselves, you're concerned for them and you'd like to see them access help."

If you're experiencing the winter blues, you don't have to wait until spring to feel better.

Light therapy

Light therapy is one of the first and most effective treatments for SAD. Light therapy works by sitting in front of a special brightly lit box that mimics sunlight. After just a few days, light therapy causes a change in brain chemicals linked to mood, according to the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Pickett calls it a "frontline treatment" and recommends starting proactively in the fall before symptoms settle in. "Use it during the winter, put it away during the spring when you start to feel better, and then dig it up in the next fall to prevent a relapse."

Exercise and stress management

People dealing with SAD aren't able to process stress as well as they normally would, pulling them into a deeper depression. Exercise and physical activity are proven to help relieve stress and anxiety. PACC staff member Tracy Bieger said 180 people were swimming in the pool last weekend. "It was so many we had to call in an extra lifeguard," she said. Jared Lund said he goes stir crazy while he's laid off for two months every winter. He comes to the PACC to shoot baskets and "get the blood flowing because it's too cold to ice fish."

Therapy

Seeing a therapist can help identify and change the negative thoughts and behaviors that make SAD feel worse. A therapist will also help schedule activities and manage stress levels. "People are reluctant to start therapy," Dr. Pickett said. "But it's important to address any negative thinking habits and cognitive patterns."

Diet

SAD also attacks appetite making sufferers crave an energy boost in sweets and starches. While this helps momentarily, the rebound leads to binging more and feeling even worse. Dr. Pickett recommends a balanced diet high in omega 3 fatty acids which come from fish, nuts and seeds.

Travel

It goes without saying, latitude changes attitude. Traveling south even for just a long weekend can jolt the winter blues away. Trip planning also makes for something to look forward to. Moenkedick said she frequently goes to Florida, but hasn't made it the last three years. "That's been really hard," she said. "Planning a Florida vacation is awesome."

Medication

Severe SAD sufferers can benefit from prescription antidepressants. The drawback is it's not a quick fix, and side effects can cause negative consequences. A doctor will start treatment before symptoms occur each year and continue until after symptoms normally go away. "Going through the physician might be easier for the person that's uncomfortable and reluctant to access mental health," Dr. Pickett said. "We're lucky we have mental health services available in this community."