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Ditch those bad moods Jan. 28, 2013
Written by: Marilyn Linton, QMI Agency
 
Beating the winter blahs just got easier

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Feeling blue? You’re not alone! The next few months are the dark ages for about 35% of Canadians. The joys of the holiday season behind us, we’re stuck with VISA bills, short days, and cold weather. Call it the winter doldrums or the soon-to-be February blahs. What to do?

Andrea Pratt has blogged about struggling with what she calls a “kind of self-defeating thinking that happens for me every February.” The award-winning Vancouver artist (www.Andreapratt.com) remembers winter slumps as far back as university days.

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“Here on the west coast it’s especially bad with the dark, gloomy days,” she says. Her solution is to go outside and exercise every single day, even if it’s just a walk with her dog. “I think it’s the combination of exercise, being in a natural environment and oxygen that is the key, plus grabbing whatever bits of light I can.”

Lack of light results in lower serotonin in the brain and is largely responsible for the type of blues called seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Dave Gallson, associate national executive director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada says that a decrease in sunlight exposure is the main theory behind SAD: “Your internal clock can be messed up and that controls everything from body temperature to hormones.”

Symptoms of SAD include low energy levels, sadness, anxiety and a withdrawal from social activities. Appetite and sleep pattern changes are also possible. “But in order to meet the criteria for SAD, you have to experience those symptoms for at least two years during the winter. Those feelings, with SAD, go away in the spring,” he explains.

It’s not just daylight but nature that can boost mood. A study by Marc Berman from Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto has shown that a walk in the park helps lift mood and improves memory performance. His work is part of a new cognitive science field which proposes that people concentrate better after spending time in nature.

Canadians with SAD who find that going outdoors is too challenging in winter opt for light therapy boxes. According to www.Mayoclinic.com, look for ones that emit white, not blue, light and as little UV light as possible. These lights which you can sit under for about 15 minutes per day, cost upwards of $100 and can be found at chain stores such as Shoppers Drug Mart, Walmart and Sears.

Short of cheering yourself up by singing The Sound of Music’s, These Are a Few of My Favorite Things, how do you chase away those blues?

Research by San Francisco State University’s Dr. David Matsumoto, author of Nonverbal Communications, suggests that smiling can lift your mood. British psychologist Dr. Karen Pine’s research on women, clothing and mood, suggests we could feel better if we wore the clothes we associate with happiness, even when feeling blue.

And by all means put on some music. Research by McGill University psychological scientist Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, explores how music can calm, motivate and entertain us: Because of its strong ties to our brain’s emotional centre, it’s like a mood regulator. (Just try not to play Sinatra’s in the Wee Small Hours of the Morning!)

Not music but art gets Andrea Pratt out of her seasonal slump. When “blocked at the easel” she just begins to paint or draw, “even if I’m uninspired. Once I’m doing it, experimenting and playing around, ideas are generated, plans are formulated, and all of a sudden I have my focus back.”

For the rest of us, there’s always chocolate. Research presented at last year’s National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society showed that chemicals in chocolate and other foods are chemically similar to a widely-used prescription mood-stabilizing drug. Toronto dietitian Doug Cook advises good quality dark chocolate.

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Moods improve for people who feel stressed out, isolated and alone when they receive a text message, reports Adrian Aguilera, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He told Science Daily, a science news service, that a text message service intervention program he developed has helped improve mental health in low-income, under-served communities. Feedback from patients confirmed the human need for regular contact, even if through a cellphone!

Melatonin out of whack?

One theory about SAD is that your daily body rhythms are out of sync with the sun. Too high daytime melatonin levels result in excessive daytime sleepiness and lack of motivation. Toronto naturopath Penny Kendall-Reed says that research suggests that for some patients with SAD, low-dose melatonin has been shown to be effective in improving mood because it “phase-shifts” the body’s disrupted circadian rhythms.

 

MORE COLUMNS BY MARILYN LINTON, QMI AGENCY

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