Curing the Winter Blues – Tips for Adults on the Spectrum

Winter is here. The days are growing shorter, colder and darker. This is rather depressing in some ways, wouldn’t you say? Cloudy, cold days run my emotional battery down! Plus, I’m not a big holiday person, so Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s do not inspire me much. I call this the “winter blues.” BUT, I have found some ways to get through these dark days in one piece (and yes, I’m already looking forward to spring).

The winter blues is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you’re like many people on the spectrum with winter blues, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.

Symptoms of the winter blues may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Heavy feeling in the arms or legs
  • Hopelessness
  • Loss of energy
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Oversleeping
  • School or work problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • Weight gain

What gives you the winter blues? A few specific factors that may come into play include:

  • Family history. As with other types of depression, those with the winter blues may be more likely to have blood relatives with the condition.
  • Having clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
  • Living far from the equator. The winter blues appears to be more common among Aspies who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter, and longer days during the summer months.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in the winter blues. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake. This disruption of your circadian rhythm may lead to feelings of depression.

What can you do to beat the winter blues? Here are some ideas:

  • Exercise regularly. Physical exercise helps relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase the winter blues symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too, which can lift your mood.
  • Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
  • Try light therapy. In light therapy, also called phototherapy, you sit a few feet from a specialized light therapy box so that you’re exposed to bright light. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.  Light therapy is one of the first line treatments for the winter blues. It generally starts working in two to four days and causes few side effects. Research on light therapy is limited, but it appears to be effective for most Aspies in relieving the winter blues symptoms. Before you purchase a light therapy box or consider light therapy, talk to your physician or mental health provider to make sure it’s a good idea and to make sure you’re getting a high-quality light therapy box.
  • Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight or add skylights to your home. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
  • Try mind-body therapies. Mind-body therapies that may help relieve depression symptoms include Yoga, Meditation, Massage therapy, Guided imagery, and Acupuncture.
  • Practice stress management. Learn techniques to manage your stress better. Unmanaged stress can lead to depression, overeating, or other unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
  • Psychotherapy is another option to treat the winter blues. Although the winter blues is thought to be related to brain chemistry, your mood and behavior also can add to symptoms. Psychotherapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse. You can also learn healthy ways to cope with the winter blues and manage stress.
  • Several herbal remedies, supplements and mind-body techniques are commonly used to relieve depression symptoms. It’s not clear how effective these treatments are for the winter blues, but there are several that may help. Keep in mind, alternative treatments alone may not be enough to relieve your symptoms. Some alternative treatments may not be safe if you have other health conditions or take certain medications. Supplements used to treat depression include Melatonin, Omega-3 fatty acids, SAMe, and St. John’s wort.
  • Socialize. When you’re feeling down, it can be hard to be social. Make an effort to connect with family and friends you enjoy being around. They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on, or a joke to give you a little boost.
  • Some Aspies with the winter blues benefit from antidepressant treatment, especially if symptoms are severe. Antidepressants commonly used to treat the winter blues include paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem) and venlafaxine (Effexor). An extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL) may help prevent depressive episodes in Aspies with a history of the winter blues. Your physician may recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms typically begin each year. He or she may also recommend that you continue to take antidepressant medication beyond the time your symptoms normally go away. Keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects. Stick to your treatment plan. Take medications as directed, and attend therapy appointments as scheduled.
  • Take a trip. If possible, take winter vacations in sunny, warm locations if you have winter the winter blues or to cooler locations if you have summer the winter blues.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough rest and take time to relax. Participate in a regular exercise program. Eat regular, healthy meals. Don’t turn to alcohol or illegal drugs for relief.

If you take steps early on to manage the symptoms of winter blues, you may be able to prevent them from getting worse over time. Some people on the spectrum find it helpful to begin treatment before symptoms would normally start in the fall or winter, and then continue treatment past the time symptoms would normally go away. If you can get control of your symptoms before they get worse, you may be able to head off serious changes in mood, appetite and energy levels.

Mark Hutten, M.A. is the creator of MyAspergersChild.com. He is a practicing counseling psychologist and parent-coach with more than 20 years’ experience. He has worked with hundreds of children, teens and adults with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism. He presents workshops and runs training courses for parents, teachers and other professionals – and is an author of articles and e-books on the subject. Mark Hutten, M.A. received his Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Norwich University.