Health

How to beat the winter blues

Are you sick of gritting your teeth to get through a particular season? Dr. John Sharp, Harvard psychiatrist and author of The Emotional Calendar, explains why and what you can do to make it better.

Are you sick of gritting your teeth to get through a particular season? Dr. John Sharp, Harvard psychiatrist and author of The Emotional Calendar, explains why—and what you can do to make it better.

Q: How can seasons affect our mood?

A: We are highly physiologically sensitive to environmental cues. Light, temperature, and humidity are all important factors. However, man-made, cultural seasonalities are just as important—how you feel about New Year’s, the end of the NFL season, or Valentine’s Day, for example. Most important are the seasons that include past milestones and anniversary reactions—happy and sad.

Q: Do all seasonal changes affect us in the same way, or do the effects of those changes depend on the individual?

A: Some physical factors, like diminished sunlight, affect most people similarly. Other factors depend entirely on the individual. It depends on how seasonally sensitive one is.

Q: In which season are we most likely to be happiest?

A: This depends on the individual. Ask yourself. Only you know. It’s better to appreciate all that you like and dislike in each season. Think of each season as its own unique world!

Q: In which season are we most likely to be sad?

A: Again, only you know. But anniversaries of loss are often a significant determining factor and an important time to plan to take especially good care of yourself.

Q: What happens in places where there’s very little seasonal variation?

A: In most countries, there is almost always some variation (whether slight or extreme) and this becomes significant. People do better with some change, otherwise it’s hard to appreciate what we have. Less seasonal variation means you have to work harder to appreciate the differences. More robust seasonal variation means you have to adapt more.

Q: Do you have any tips for someone who’s currently battling winter blues?

A: If it’s SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a 10,000 Lux light box for 20 to 30 minutes each morning is the fix and you’ll feel better after 10 days. If it’s a recurrent clinical depression, see your doctor. Counseling and medication work the best, together. If it’s the result of personal associations to this time of year, be mindful and take especially good care of yourself.