If there’s any truth to the old saw that “misery loves company,” Minnesota has been the epicenter of camaraderie this winter.

The one-two punch of the snowiest February on record and below-zero temperatures in March left many Minnesotans reeling. Even members of the flannel-wearing, snowblowing-fanatical, “we love to brag about our nasty weather” contingent started to look skyward and whine, “When is it gonna end?”

The winter blues are a common experience, and even if it was a little worse than usual this year, mental health professionals have suggestions for combating it.

“Usually about 20, 25 percent of the general population will experience some subtle changes in their mood, where they may become just a little bit more apathetic, maybe just a little bit more down,” said Craig Sawchuk, a professor of psychology with the Mayo Clinic. “I think one of the best ways of describing the symptom pattern is it’s actually like hibernation.”

Referred to as seasonal affective disorder (commonly called SAD) or seasonal depression, the symptoms include disruptions in sleep, such as hypersomnia, cravings for carbohydrates and mood changes. It’s believed that the main causes are the low temperatures and lack of sunlight.

“Seasonal depression is a recurrent depression that comes on in the fall and winter and tends to resolve by spring,” said Dr. Barry Rittberg, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Health.

Some physicians prescribe therapeutic light boxes to their patients to help counter these winter blues, as Rittberg has been doing for over a decade. You don’t need a prescription to buy one, but having the script will enable some health insurance plans to pick up the cost.

Rittberg recommends a light box rated at 10,000 lux, a measure of brightness, and keeping it at least 18 inches away during the treatment.

“You use the light box for about 20 minutes each morning. I always recommend to use it before the sun is fully up to really extend the day,” he said. “You can read and balance the checkbook or do crossword puzzles. Any of the number of things to just keep yourself occupied. It starts to help within just a couple of days.”

Besides light boxes, experts also recommend various forms of self-care, such as eating nutritious foods, getting adequate sleep, exercising and maintaining social connections, despite the difficulties brought on by the weather. The lack of sunlight can often leave us deficient in vitamin D, so it’s also important to maintain adequate levels of that vitamin.

“Making sure we’re giving our body the basic principles that it needs to be able to release those happy chemicals in our brain,” said Dr. Courtney Jordan Baechler, assistant commissioner for health improvement for the Minnesota Department of Health. “Most people will talk about changes in mood, energy, positivity, feeling a sense of hope” with some of these practices.

Asking for help

While you can buy light boxes over the counter, Rittberg recommends meeting with a physician to ensure that it is a sufficient way to treat your symptoms.

Another reason to see a doctor is to make sure you’re addressing the right problem. Because it can be tricky to differentiate the symptoms of seasonal depression from those of more serious clinical depression, it’s important not to self-diagnose, Jordan Baechler said.

“I think before people are self-diagnosing, it’s great to be having a conversation with a clinician,” she said. “What can be challenging is the symptoms of clinical depression can be quite varied.”

Winter isn’t the only season that can change our mood, and some people may even deal with seasonal affective disorder in the summer, said Michael DeSanctis, a psychologist with a private practice in St. Paul.

“People with summer SAD may actually be very distressed by too much light and heat,” DeSanctis said. “And they might want to be in coniferous forests in the summer, visit caves, go to dark movie theaters.”

Regardless of the season, it’s important for anyone experiencing depression to check in with a professional.

“People should not underestimate their depression,” Rittberg said. “It can be insidious, creep up slowly and worsen slowly.”


Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.