Winter Blues

By Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S.

Are you beginning to feel as though we’ve entered a new phase of the dark ages? Wondering when we’re going to see the sun for a sustained period of time again? The Louisville area has been in the grips of one of the most atypical weather patterns in years, marked by months of cloudy conditions and precipitation that is well above average.

This has some significant implications for health and well-being, not the least of which is an increased likelihood of feeling depressed. To begin, the winter months are associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, a state of depression that has made its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), where it is used to characterize the episodic course of a form of depression. Given our current and past weather patterns of sustained cloudiness and rain, the chances of feeling depressed are greater than normal.

Symptoms of depression may cause loss of interest in things, diminished mental and physical energy, feeling blue and down in the dumps, negative thought patterns, changes in biological states (sleep, sexual activity, appetite, weight) and for some people, suicidal thoughts. Approximately twice as many women as men are diagnosed with depressive disorders.

Overall, clinically significant depression is one of the most common of all psychological disorders, but fortunately one that has proven to be highly treatable, typically with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. In the case of SAD, regular exposure to a broad-spectrum light source is commonly prescribed.

Unfortunately, it’s estimated that only a small percentage of people with depression seek professional help. In part, this may be due to the fact that, as depression becomes increasingly pronounced, people tend to feel increasingly helpless and develop a pessimistic attitude about treatment.

In reality, most everyone has depressive feelings from time to time.  They are part of the natural variation in emotions and mood states that come and go on a day-to-day basis. The likelihood of clinically significant depression increases when such feelings become persistent and are accompanied by an increasing number of the symptoms described above. If you recognize this pattern in yourself or in someone close to you, don’t hesitate to take the positive step of seeking professional help.

For years, health and fitness advocates have noted that exercise and physical activity can be very helpful in countering feelings of depression. In fact, more that 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended exercise as an antidote to what was then termed “melancholia,” a type of chronic depression. Research studies dating back to 1905 have reported favorably on the effects of exercise in relieving depression, and the widely cited 1996 surgeon general’s report on health and physical activity documented a link between exercise and mild-to-moderate depression. Other studies have found positive effects of exercise on symptoms of depression in patients recovering from heart attacks and breast cancer.

Psychological, social and neurobiological mechanisms have all been proposed to explain the positive effects of exercise on depression. Concerning the former, positive expectations, feelings of control and time out from depressive circumstances appear to play contributory roles. Exercising with others either in the neighborhood or at a fitness center can help counteract social isolation that is common in depression, or provide access to sources of social support. Exercise may affect levels of key brain neurotransmitters and a key neuro-hormonal circuit, although research in this area is at a very early stage.

The bottom line? Be on the alert for feelings of depression, especially during this time of year, and especially this year, given our recent history of cloudy, gloomy weather. Distinguish between the normal emotional ups and downs that everyone experiences and more persistent feelings of depression and helplessness. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help. And don’t overlook the potential benefits of being physically active as a way of keeping your mood and spirits elevated.

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Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S., is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Louisville and an ACSM-certified Health Fitness Instructor.  You can contact him via email at


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