Mood Check: Is it Depression?
November 2, 2015 by Gabrielle Acord
Depression: it’s just one of the unexpected gifts the New Year can bring. The colder, darker, flu-buggier post-holiday and midwinter months are fertile ground for a decrease in mood. For some, it just feels like the winter blahs—a desire to tuck in & stay warm and wait it out ‘til spring. For others who already suffer from some form of depression, it can take an already low mood to a new, dangerous level. Fortunately, depression symptoms are very treatable through talk therapy, personal behavior management, and medication. The key is to be aware and prepared to ask for help.
Worldwide studies show that seasonal mood fluctuations are due more to decreased access to sunshine rather than actual seasons. For those who experience seasonal mood changes, the shorter days and limited exposure to light can lead to a change in sleep-wake rhythms. This disturbance can also interfere with transmission of serotonin, one of our brains best “happy” chemicals. The trick of the colder seasons is that they can hide depression symptoms. Most everyone spends more time indoors and less time interacting in a social, public way, when it’s cold outside. A depressed person may feel like misery has some company. Ironically, suicide attempts and suicides increase in the Spring and early Summer months, when, after the long winter, most people are out enjoying relationships and social interaction in the sunshine. This shift can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Depression can be difficult to diagnose for some. Those who experience major depressive disorders most likely have a long history of low mood, which interferes with day-to-day functioning. These individuals probably identified depression early on in their lives and have been managing with medication and/or cognitive-behavioral therapy off and on for years. But, as we know, depression can be situational and seasonal as well. Prolonged and/or repeated exposure to negative life events can bring on depressive symptoms. While medication can be helpful in these situations, behavior management is also very effective in treating most types of depression.
Mental-health professionals frequently hear about depressive symptoms, including: decreased or increased need for sleep, an increase or decrease in eating and/or appetite, a desire to withdraw and isolate, and/or feelings of hopelessness and despair. Additional symptoms of depression include sore muscles, inability to concentrate, increased anxiety, irritability and anger, memory loss, and/or susceptibility to illness—just to name a few. A person can feel like he or she has the flu. He or she can become angry and annoyed and losing keys all the time—and may actually be suffering from depression.
If you think you may be experiencing depression, here are a few strategies you can use to increase your mood:
Expose yourself to sunshine and other types of light: Studies show that light exposure helps maintain our circadian rhythms and the effective transmission of our “happy” brain chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine.
Stay active: Energy creates energy. Fight the impulse to hibernate and vegetate. The endorphins created and released during physical activity are a natural medicine. Start with a walk around your yard or block. That is a double-bonus that includes activity and sunlight.
Social interaction: Interacting with others can also release endorphins and increase serotonin and dopamine. Depression, by nature, makes you want to withdraw and isolate, but even a little social interaction can reduce depressive symptoms. Say YES when invited to do something, before you have a chance to think it through. When you are depressed, you can always think of a reason NOT to do something. Answer the phone, respond to messages, play with kids, and sign up for fun classes. Laugh often and, literally, out loud. All of these efforts will naturally improve your mood.
Be aware of negative thinking and realistically challenge it: When we are depressed, complications of everyday life can feel personal, permanent, and pervasive. For example, you get a flat tire while driving. You could feel grateful, because you know you have AAA, or that no one was hurt, or that you have a cell phone, or that you know how to change a tire.Instead, when you are depressed, you think, “Things like this always happen to me and I am such an idiot for getting a flat tire.” (Personal) Or, “I will never catch a break because my life has always been awful and it always will be.” (Permanent) Or, “Not only do I have a flat tire, but my whole life is horrible and this is just an example of how bad everything is.” (Pervasive) Your thoughts (my whole life is horrible) lead to feelings (sadness, anger, fear). Changing your thoughts (life can be difficult, but I can do hard things) helps to change the feelings (hopeful, empowered, grateful).
Set limits: Know your personal and emotional limitations and give yourself permission and means to leave and go home or rest if needed. Just knowing there is a way “out” can give you the strength to do more.
See your doctor: Today’s antidepressants are effective and have fewer and shorter-acting side effects. There are so many options for treatment, and you don’t necessarily need a psychiatrist to prescribe them to you. Today’s run-of-the-mill family practitioners receive excellent training in first-line treatment of depression. With a little patience, you and your doctor can usually find an effective treatment.
Studies have shown repeatedly that a combination of medication, behavior management, and talk therapy are very effective in reducing symptoms of depression. You can get started on your own and see immediate results—and then add a prescriber and/or therapist as needed. With all the present-day treatment options available, there would be no reason to go without glasses or contacts if you have poor eyesight—and there is no reason to suffer unnecessarily with depression.