Oliver: Feeling down because it’s winter? It’s not all in your imagination

Here are a few tips to feel better when sunlight is in short supply

When the alarm goes off each morning at 6:57 a.m., more often than not I give a little groan.

Granted, this isn’t exactly an early wake-up call. However, this time of year, it might as well be 4 a.m. It’s still dark out. I have to fight awfully hard to drag myself out of bed.

If we’re lucky, the sun will come out for a few hours and then it’s dark again by 4:30 p.m.

Of course, we actually are getting longer days now, since we’ve passed the winter solstice. Still, it’s a long and arduous road back.

For a while there last week, it was gray day after gray day after gray day, with no sun at all.

If you’re affected by all of this lack of sunshine, well, you’re not alone. There are a lot of us out there.

Add the stress of all of these months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the anxiety produced by all the unrest and uncertainty going on in Washington, and it’s not surprising that a lot of people are having a more difficult time than usual coping.

If you’re like me, it’s hard to take the time for “self-care,” but here are a few tips from the National Institutes of Health that can help with seasonal depression if we take them.

· Take a walk, go ice-skating or do other activities that you normally enjoy.

· Get out in the sunlight or brightly lit spaces, especially early in the day.

· Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative.

· Eat nutritious foods, and avoid overloading on carbs like cookies and candies.

· Be patient. You won’t suddenly “snap out of” depression. Your mood will improve gradually.

· If you have thoughts of suicide, get help right away. Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The McHenry County Crisis Line is 1-800-892-8900.

Most of us who have mild symptoms could find some relief doing these “self-care” activities.

However, those with these more severe symptoms might be dealing with a condition called seasonal affective disorder, also known as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern: hypersomnia (or oversleeping), daytime fatigue, overeating, weight gain and craving carbohydrates.

Many people also may experience other symptoms, including decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thought and lack of interest in usual activities and decreased socialization, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

If you find that you’re dealing with more severe symptoms, please reach out for help. Symptoms usually begin in October and November and subside in March and April. However, some people start seeing symptoms as early as August; others don’t start having them until January. Most do see symptoms resolve by early May.

NAMI points out that it might take a couple of years of symptoms in order to make a diagnosis. So you might want to keep track of when you start feeling bad and when you start to improve.

For more severe cases, NAMI says treatment includes antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise. It can also include light therapy, which simulates sunlight.

I used to wonder why I felt so down for so many months during the winter. It never occurred to me that it might be related to the lack of light.

These days, when I have to fight to stay positive pretty much all the time, I’m glad that at least I now know how to tackle some of it head on.

I’ll do what I can to beat my “winter blues.” And keep track of how I’m feeling, just in case it’s something more.

And if I do roll over to go back to sleep, chances are pretty good I’m dreaming of spring.

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.