With shorter days, changes in the weather, and major holidays on the way , it’s no wonder that the winter months are often high times for depression.
For sufferers of chronic pain, the likelihood of depression is already 4 times higher to begin with, making this time of year even more difficult.
We have a few tips to help you cope.
Take steps to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
As the hours of daylight grow shorter in the winter, some people experience a dip in their mood that can range from mild to severe. Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly what causes this, but most agree that the change in the hours of sunlight affects people's biological clocks, serotonin levels, and melatonin levels, which can all lead to depression. If you feel you are suffering from seasonal affective disorder, contact your physician right away, and start to make a few lifestyle changes:
- Take a 10-15 minute morning walk on most days
- Sit next to a bright sunny window while you work in your home or office
- Open all your windows and shades as much as you can, and make sure nothing is blocking the windows outside
- Ask your doctor about photo-therapy (or light therapy).
Living in the Midwest, I know firsthand how easy it can be to simply curl up in a pile of blankets and stay in bed to keep warm during the winter. Unfortunately, inactivity is not good for chronic pain, and it can take a toll on your mind, making you feel lethargic and leaving you too much time to think about your pain.
Exercise can actually do wonders for pain by nourishing and repairing spinal structures, keeping the anatomy healthy, flexible and strong, and stimulating the body’s natural healing processes. Whether it’s doing some simple stretching or aerobic exercises every day or even getting out of the house and going to a local community center to swim, activity can at least make the patient feel as if he or she has some control over their pain.
You also may not know that exercise benefits the vagus nerve, which has been recognized as an important pathway for depression. The only nerve to begin in the brainstem, the vagus nerve extends through the neck and into the abdomen. With stimulation, the vagus nerve is more likely to function correctly, minimizing depression.
For more information, see Exercise and Back Pain.
The human mind can sometimes be your worst enemy, especially when bottling up how you’re feeling both physically and mentally. Consider joining a community who knows how you’re feeling, such as the dedicated Spine-health Depression forum, and speak with members who have first-hand experience with depression stemming from chronic pain.
Simply letting others know that you’re having a bad day and then hearing them say how they understand what you’re going through can be therapeutic. Talking with others who are dealing with the same pain can be a great way to learn about how they cope when feeling a bit down as a result of their symptoms (learn more about joining the Spine-health forums).
If you are really depressed, see a family doctor, psychiatrist or a mental health professional, who can explore your depression in greater detail and may prescribe antidepressants if necessary.
If you’re close to family, take comfort in their presence around the holidays, which often allow people to see faces that they haven’t seen in a long time.
Avoid depressants like alcohol
Unfortunately, alcohol is viewed by some people as a means to escape their pain and depression. While alcohol may provide temporary relief, it is actually a depressant when the “buzz” wears off, often making it harder to exercise and be motivated to participate in other beneficial activities, and also affecting sleep in detrimental ways.
While the holidays may offer plenty of moments to indulge yourself with a glass of wine, remember to do so in moderation if you choose to drink. Don’t be embarrassed about passing on a drink and having something healthier, like a glass of orange juice or sparkling water with a lime.
With all that the holidays require – buying gifts, running from one party to the next, preparing feasts, etc. – it is easy to feel uncertain about whether you’re coming or going. For chronic sufferers, don’t feel bad about setting limitations and realistic goals over the holidays.
For example, if you’re dealing with chronic pain, maybe it doesn’t make sense for you to be running around and taking care of all of the last-minute details that come with the holidays. Rather, speak with a loved one about what you can realistically do, and focus on activities that make you happy and take your mind off how you feel.
Perhaps this means that you will be responsible for stringing up the Christmas tree this season. The point is to focus on activities that excite you and indulge your mind, as opposed to ones that feel more like a chore and bring stress.
Dealing with depression and chronic pain is something that can't be achieved in one fell swoop. However, by taking gradual steps each and every day, you may be better prepared to enjoy the holidays for what they should be: a special time to be with family and friends.