Tips for getting through the winter blues

If the dark days of winter typically get you down and your depression seems to be unrelated to anything going on in your life, you may have seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder is an organic type of depression that has to do with a chemical imbalance in the brain, explains Rhonda Griffin, a mental health counselor at Valley Medical Center.

“When our brains are triggered by the lack of sunlight and it’s darker, the chemicals that we need in our brain don’t get produced as well,” she said.

Griffin has been practicing medicine for 23 years, the last year spent at Valley. She also has a private practice in Issaquah.

It is thought that reduced sunlight during the winter leads to a reduced production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has a soothing, calming effect. The lack may send people searching for that sunny destination getaway come February.

“(Vacations) are perfect for people in this climate because they help boost your serotonin and dopamine levels in your brain,” Griffin said.

Can’t go on a vacation? Griffin said there are plenty of other ways of preventing or coping with seasonal affective disorder:

1.Take your vitamins. Specifically, vitamin D is what one gets from sunlight and vitamin C boosts the immune system and helps metabolize vitamin D.

2. Get a light box. Light therapy is thought to help people recover quickly from seasonal affective disorder because of the full-spectrum of bright light it exposes them to at 10 to 15 minute sessions per day. Light boxes are pretty common these days, said Griffin, and can be found at most corner drug stores.

3. Exercise. Staying active can stimulate that sense of well-being, Griffin said.

“So if you stay active, you’re going to feel a lot better rather than sitting on your coach watching TV and eating chips,” she said.

4. Book that trip to Hawaii.

“If you know you’re going to plan something, you have something to look forward to, so you know that this is temporary,” Griffin said.

She hasn’t heard of as many people experiencing seasonal affective disorder this winter because the area has received a lot of sun so far.

“I think it’s hard for people who have been raised in warmer climates,” Griffin said. “When they transplant here, it affects them a little bit harder.”

People sometimes realize they have the condition after they notice a repeat pattern of visiting web sites like Travelocity to book vacations at this time, year after year. For others, they don’t realize it until they start to unravel details about their depression in the therapist’s office and realize there is a sort of anniversary to their blues, the counselor said.

“With any depression, a lot of it has to do with making sure you have supportive people and are engaging with people who are positive rather than draining,” Griffin said.

Surrounding one with as much positive energy as possible makes one that much better off, she said.