January 27, 2022

Professionals offer advice on beating the winter blues

Kevin Conlon/city editor

Cortland High School junior Brady Pennock, left and senior Joe Cataldo run Thursday up Valley View Drive from Main Street as they train for indoor track. You don’t have to exercise hard, but experts suggest getting outside and staying active to combat seasonal depression.

Although she’s lived in Cortland for more than a decade, Juliana Garcia remembers the shock of New York winters compared to her hometown in Texas — the freezing weather and lack of sunshine were a one-way ticket to a winter slump.

There’s no one right way to wipe out the winter blues, she said.

For Garcia, a clinical counselor at Tompkins Cortland Community College’s health and wellness center, the go-to solution is keeping a routine, staying active and finding another source of vitamin D — such as the sun.

With the holiday lights now dark and stored away until next year, many Central New York residents face the cold reality of months of winter.

In a given year, about 5% of Americans experience seasonal depression, reports Mental Health America.

“I suggest to a lot of students that I work with and my friends in the area to get a light therapy lamp,” Garcia said. “They can really help curb some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder because they imitate sunlight. That’s really what you’re missing in upstate New York in the winter. When we have shorter daylight hours and it’s always cloudy it can be a real downer.”

Haiyan Zhang, assistant professor of psychology at SUNY Cortland, said the lack of sunshine not only diminishes vitamin D, but also the melatonin needed to regulate your sleep cycle.

“In Chinese, there is an old saying that your body rhythm is in sync with the day and time of the year,” Zhang said. “You’re more awake during the summer months when you have longer days and more sun exposure, and during the winter is when you hibernate with all the animals — it’s not a bad thing to sleep for longer.”

Experts from SUNY Cortland’s recreation, parks and leisure studies department recommend trying out a few things to find what solution works best for you.

“We know that getting outside and being active is good for your mental health,” said Assistant Professor Qwynne Lackey, whose focus is on outdoor recreation. “So in the wintertime, when it’s a little bit harder for people to feel motivated to get outside and get active, it makes sense that you may be feeling blue.”

Staying active doesn’t have to mean running a marathon, Lackey said, it could be going for a walk around the block, putting up a bird feeder or even sipping coffee on your front porch to watch the snowfall.

While getting outside may be the solution to your January slump, it might not work for everyone.

“This time of year is an opportunity to really recuperate from all the socializing over the holidays,” said Assistant Professor Jason Page, whose focus is on therapeutic benefits of recreation. “Reading a book can be very meditative, completing a puzzle or catching up on a Netflix show — there are all kinds of things that can stimulate the mind. We can reinvigorate ourselves without having to trudge out into the wilderness.”

Getting back into your usual routine, or even creating a better routine, is a good way to manage your daily life, Page said.

It’s important for people to note whether they’re being affected by the winter blues or they’re experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder or depression, Garcia said.

“It’s different for everyone — sometimes you may just have an off day because you haven’t seen sunshine in a few weeks, but for some people that feeling becomes an everyday thing and it’s terrible,” Garcia said.

Garcia recommends keeping track of your day-to-day moods.

“If you’re having seven straight days of not being able to do any of the activities you enjoy, I would suggest reaching out to someone,” Garcia said. “It’s normal to have days when you feel down but when it’s persistent, that’s when you should reach out to your primary care physician.”

Lisa Hoeschele, executive director and CEO of Family & Children’s Counseling Services, said it’s important to seek help when you need it.

“You can do your exercises, you can try and eat healthy food and make sure you get your regimented sleep, but I think it’s most important during this time to reach out to those individuals who can help you,” Hoeschele said.

“The first thing I have to do is remember to be kind to myself, and know that I’m not the only one that potentially feels low after a long day,” Lackey said. “I need to be OK with that, and make myself get up and do something, even if it’s something little.”