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Bummed out by this brutal winter? Here's how to recognize seasonal depression and fight it

Elise Citrowske uses a light therapy lamp on Tuesday, March 12, in her work space at The Village Family Service Center in south Fargo. These sorts of lamps give off light that mimics the sun, and can offer relief from seasonal depression. David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
A pedestrian walks along First Avenue North in downtown Fargo during stormy conditions on Saturday, March 9. Blizzards, cold and dark days can lead to seasonal depression during the winter. David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — Not again.

Not another blizzard. Stop with the subzero temperatures. And for the love of everything that is good, please stop snowing!

That may be how Red River Valley residents respond when they see more snow in the forecast. This winter has produced some of the coldest days and strongest storms in recent history.

It’s enough to make anyone want to climb back into bed or stay on the couch to binge on a favorite TV show. After all, how are you supposed to get to the gym when the door is blocked by a 6-foot snowdrift? And who would want to go outside with friends when it’s minus 20 without the wind chill?

The isolation from friends, lack of activity and low levels of sunlight can be hard on mental health, and the winter can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, experts say.

“We’re definitely seeing people being really negatively affected by the winter,” said Dr. Jo Ellison, a psychologist with Essentia Health.

Winter can be the busiest time of year for the Village Family Service Center, but it’s hard to say whether this year has been tougher on those with SAD, said Shauna Erickson, a marriage and family therapist for the Fargo-based human services provider.

Residents can’t always leave the house, but experts warn against falling into a pattern. People should be creative about being active and social during the winter months, Ellison said, especially when they are used to doing outdoor activities during the rest of the year.

“Sometimes we have to get incredibly strategic about how we remain active and how we remain connected with other people,” she said.

'Taking action'

Winter weather started early this season in Fargo, according to the National Weather Service. The first measurable snow fell Oct. 10, with 1.6 inches — three weeks before Fargo’s average first snowfall of Oct. 31. The city, on average, sees its last snowfall April 17.

Fargo has experienced six blizzards this season compared with the normal of one, according to the weather service.

Saturday’s storm wasn’t a blizzard, but it brought 9 inches of snow to Fargo, the most accumulation for a single day this season, the weather service said. A “massive and possibly historic winter storm” threatens the area Wednesday into Thursday.

Humans are social beings and do well when they are around others, said Dr. Keith Donohue, a psychology resident at Sanford Health in Moorhead. Colder weather can limit that social interaction and exercise, he said.

“We’re worried about people becoming really passive, just things are sort of happening instead of them choosing to do certain things and taking action,” Ellison said. “That’s sort of a recipe for depression, and the winter has the tendency to make us feel that way."

Diagnosing depression

Being sad is normal, but people should watch for extended periods of feeling unhappy, Donohue said. Loss of interest, lack of self-care and increased irritability also can be symptoms of depression.

“If you find that you’re more often than not sad and those days are stretching on for upwards of a week or two, then that is consistent with a diagnosis of depression,” he said.

It’s important to be aware of one’s self, Donohue said. People also should reach out and be sensitive to others when they notice changes that could indicate depression, he said.

Those who feel depressed should seek help from a physician, though there are more affordable resources, including employee assistance programs, university mental health clinics and FirstLink's 211 help line, Donohue said.

It’s important to approach a person one may think is depressed strategically so as not to make him or her feel ashamed, Erickson said. Instead of saying, “I think you’re depressed,” try asking how the person is feeling or saying, “You haven’t seemed like yourself,” she said.

To fight seasonal depression, Donohue suggested setting goals, such as calling a friend. Erickson recommended activities that offer a sense of accomplishment, such as cooking, creating art and organizing. If a person can afford it, Ellison suggested traveling to a warmer place for a break.

7 tips for fighting seasonal depression

1. Exercise: It can be hard to get outside, but try to set aside time to stay active.

2. Buy a light therapy lamp: These lamps give off light that mimics the sun, which isn't as abundant in the winter months as other times of the year.

3. Plan social events indoors: Whether it is going to a large event, getting a cup of coffee with a friend or talking with a loved one over the phone, social interaction is a must for humans.

4. Set a goal for the day: This can help give a person a sense of accomplishment. It can be small or large.

5. Do activities that bring joy to your life: Cooking, reading, organizing, creating art. Doing something you love can not only keep you distracted but also make you feel good.

6. Take a vacation: If you can afford it and need a break, traveling to warmer temperatures may just be what the doctor ordered.

7. Speaking of the doctor: If you experience long periods of sadness, lack of interest or other symptoms of depression, you should consult a mental health professional for the best path forward.