News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 6, 2014

Winter snow, cold and lack of sun can get to the best of us

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Getting angry at Mother Nature for overachieving in snow production may seem like a useless emotion.

But it’s not unusual these days to see people’s frustrations bubbling to the surface when faced with — once again — cleaning ice from the windshield, shoveling sidewalks and driveways, or even entertaining bored schoolchildren on yet another snow day.

The bitterness that may now be showing in the winter of 2013-14 can be attributed to many factors besides the wind chill, including limited sunshine and the recent arrival of credit card bills from last-minute Christmas spending.

Weathering the weather frustrations in a constructive way is the best action for people who are ready to kick Old Man Winter to the curb and make way for spring’s arrival. And recognizing some physical changes that come with the season can also help.

 In addition to the overabundance of snow this year, many parts of Indiana have received only three days of sunshine since Christmas.

That lack of sun can throw some people into sadness, anger or fear, explained P.T. Wilson of Greencastle, who is a pastoral psychotherapist with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. Wilson is campus chaplain at DePauw University.  

Adding to the seasonal funk may be the absence of a “sweetheart” — irritated by the approach of Valentine’s Day. And a credit card dilemma may coincide with the national stress about debt ceilings.

Too much snow — about which no one can do anything — may be the final stresser that causes people to make like a volcano and blow their tops.

“We’re not only having all these snow storms, but we’re having ‘emotional pockets of unclarity,’” Wilson said. “We want to make decisions that are different than we have to make, and our frustrations are rising because we feel boxed in.”

Getting beyond the volcanic emotions accompanying the repeated snowfalls is doable.

“Start by looking at the small things that you still have control over,” Wilson said. “What you eat, the amount of sleep you are getting, exercise, and find time to spend with your friends.”

Children — who often seem irrationally overjoyed by yet another snowfall — are used to playing games indoors when the cold weather makes outdoor recess impossible at school. Adults, however, have trouble adjusting to a kink in their normal routines.

“Most of us adults have forgotten how to play games indoors,” Wilson said.

Another suggestion he offers is to make sure to get proper nutrition, healthy amounts of sleep and quality time with friends, because neglecting those things can chip away at how a person feels about life.

Among other ideas, he suggests finding an empty notebook in which to record feelings, or a punching bag to pummel, or clearing a spot in the yard where you can safely destroy that dreadful ceramic holiday present from your least-favorite relative.

“Find planned ways of releasing the pent-up energy,” Wilson recommended. “It’s gonna come out. So is it going to come out in a way that we plan, or are we going to let it come out as a volcano that erupts and harms others?”

In Vigo County, the snowy weather has produced an abundance of people who are reporting the symptoms of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“We are definitely seeing an influx of people with it,” said Cindy Dowers, chief nursing officer at Harsha Behavioral Center in Terre Haute. “When you are cooped up in the house and there’s not a lot to do, and it’s dark and gloomy out, it can be a depressing season.”

Dowers said that people who experience SAD may notice symptoms in the fall as the dwindling hours of sunlight disrupt the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which signals when to sleep or when to be awake.

Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in the brain chemical serotonin, which can trigger, or worsen, depression. The seasonal change can also disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

While many people experience some elements of sadness in winter, it is the persistent feeling of sadness along with suicidal thoughts or behavior, social withdrawal and substance abuse that may signal more help is needed.

Some preventive action to take is to decorate living spaces and work spaces with bright cheery colors in the gloomy months. Open window covers to let light into the house. Exercise, and try to go to bed and get up at the same time each night and day. Eating a healthy diet and being social can also help a person overcome sadness.

Dr. Ahsan Mahmood of Hamilton Center in Terre Haute said that some people are more prone than others to experience “the winter blues.”

Some of that is just geographical, and because Hoosier winters are usually milder than what has been experienced this winter, the occurrence of SAD may be more noticeable now.

“It is found to be more prevalent in areas which have extended months of winter,” Mahmood said. “For example, winter blues are reported more in New Hampshire than in Florida.”

He said that bright light therapy has been found to be an effective treatment for seasonal winter depression. Some antidepressants and melatonin can also be used in winter months to help alleviate symptoms, he said. Those symptoms can be in the mind, which is depression, or in the body, with aches, tiredness and food cravings.

But, once spring does arrive, it is likely that the symptoms of SAD will go away.

“That’s why this is different from regular depression,” Mahmood said of SAD. “This will go away. But if it is overwhelming, you should get assistance. The more it lingers, the more it will affect mood.”



Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.