As we remember, it was just a year ago that winter swooped in and sprinkled snow all over the pavement in New York. Daylight Savings Time has happened already and so the sun is setting quicker which makes most of us who don’t get out of work before 4 p.m. sad. So the question is: how can you avoid getting the blues this winter?
We interviewed Denise Varela, a licensed Mental Health Counsoler of 12 years and owner of the practice Nurture We. Denise grew up in Ridgewood and has been living in Bushwick for a few years, so she knows the area well and just how to combat depression right here in our own neighborhood.
1) Last winter was especially hard on New Yorkers, and it felt like a collective depression came over the city from the harsh weather. Are some people more affected by the weather than others?
All of us are affected by the decrease in hours where the sun is out. Our circadian rhythm – our body clock gets messed up and slightly off schedule. That’s why most of us in the summer can feel like we are jumping out of bed, yet in winter we have to have 5 alarms, 2 cups of coffee and crawl out of bed. To add to this, we have the cold weather, and warm fuzzy blankets that tell us we are crazy for wanting to leave them behind. So I believe that many of us do struggle with the cold weather.
Some people are more susceptible to the effects of the winter months. If a person is very stressed, anxious, has a history of depression or bipolar disorder, they can be affected more severely. There are some people that regularly feel down in the fall and winter, but the depression seems to lift in the spring. This is what has been commonly termed “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, but most recently in the new DSM-V it is a specifier for Depression and Bi-polar Disorder called “With Seasonal Pattern”. So to explain it as simply as possible, specifically speaking of the “winter blues” if you have felt that sadness come for at least two years at the same time of the year, and the winter blues outnumbers other episodes you may have had of depression, and you always get better once spring rolls around, you may have depression with a seasonal pattern. People in higher latitudes of the earth are more susceptible, as are younger people. There are higher numbers of women that have a seasonal pattern of depression, but some studies suggest men have a more severe presentation.
2) If you’re someone who finds themselves really depressed in the winter, what can you do to lift your spirits?
There are a few things that I recommend for people who are struggling with depression, especially during the winter months. The first one is GO OUTSIDE! Even if its cloudy! You will benefit from the extra light. If you work in an office where there are no windows, take your break outside. If you can walk at lunch, do it! The exercise is beneficial as well. If you have windows, stand by them or sit by them for a while. The best time to benefit from the extra light is in the mornings. For more severe cases, doctors will use a light box therapy, which uses a box that produces light similar to that of the sun’s light.The other thing for a mild to moderate case (and of course they should check with a doctor to be sure this is OK for them) is increase your omega oils. So get some fish oil capsules or some flax seed capsules, or add flax seed to your foods, add extra nuts, extra fish–there are so many options–because there are studies showing that omega oils can be as beneficial for mild to moderate depression as taking an antidepressant.
Something else you can try is laughing. Go meet up with your silliest friends and catch a movie. Watch a comedy show. Do something that will make you belly laugh. Or just make yourself laugh! Test it out–rate haw sad you are feeling on a scale of 1-10, 10 being very depressed. If you feel, lets say, like a 7, go and pull up a funny video on Youtube. Then after you have seen it, rate yourself again. I promise you will at the very least have a slight improvement!
Finally, find a support network. For some, that is family. For others, its friends. For others, its finding a therapist or support group to attend. The point is do not isolate yourself, even though that is how you may feel. Being around people can be hard when you are depressed, but it is a good way to keep from getting worse. Talk about your feelings, accept lovingly that this is how your body works and feels sometimes, and chose to move towards where you want to be emotionally.
3) At what point should someone seek professional help for this issue?
Some symptoms of depression range from decreased energy, decreased interest in activities, decreased or increased sleep, decreased or increased appetite, agitation, irritability, trouble concentrating hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts. More commonly for a seasonal pattern, you may find decreased energy, increased appetite (craving carbs and sweets), but everyone is different. If you are feeling hopeless, have any thoughts of hurting or killing yourself or any other person, or if any of the above symptoms starts to interfere with your life (you are isolating yourself, you are missing days from work, etc.) you should reach out to a mental health professional. The most important thing I can offer is if you feel like you want to hurt or kill yourself or someone else, there is help–Do not wait! Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-TALK (8255), TTY line: 800-799-4889. There is help and you don’t have to struggle alone.
4) Are there any indoor-places in the neighborhood that you think would serve as a great escape for people who have a hard time getting around in the winter?
Yes! Anywhere bright! For example, the Ridgewood Public Library has huge windows, and you can catch up on some reading. We are living in Bushwick at a great time, where people are opening up these great little coffee spots, where you can sit right by the front and enjoy a tea or coffee while you watch people walking by. There are yoga studios in our neighborhood that will provide exercise and community. I personally get my butt on the L train to the city and walk around when I have a chance, because it gets me moving, seeing something new, and I am outside. Go three blocks in a direction you have never walked in our neighborhood, I am sure you will see something new. The point is getting out, moving, taking in new sights. And when it gets too cold, find a destination, and enjoy from the inside.
5) Are there any particular groups or organizations that you know of that people can join?
There are meet ups for people with mood disorders, although most of those aren’t run by professionals, but are a great way to socialize. My practice runs different classes and groups throughout the year, although my practice specializes in pregnant women and new moms, who I forgot to mention before as a susceptible group, especially those moms that have a history of postpartum depression, those that just gave birth, or those that had a birth trauma. You can also search online for a therapist who can refer you based on your needs. Nurture We does individual counseling and coaching as well. But remember, for the more severe cases, speak to a doctor, who will refer to a psychiatrist for medications, or even hospitalization if necessary