Winter Blues… A CBT Approach for Treatment

THREE STEPS TO BANISHING WINTER BLUES…  f o r e v e r

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, winter blues, seasonal depression and… (did you know?) summertime sadness, is a mood disorder subset of seasonal patterns in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter (or summer).[1]

For those living in North America as well as other Northern Hemisphere countries, seasonal affective disorder is most prevalent during the winter months.  In efforts to avoid the cold and dampness, we tend to remain indoors for most of the day, venturing outside more out of necessity than pleasure.  Typically a season of reduced activity, we are affected by the shorter days (with less total sunlight) and an increased innate desire for rest and sleep.  We also forget how vital it is to breathe fresh air by being outside and in nature on a regular basis as part of what allows us to feel better.

Despite the inevitable climate and weather conditions affecting us during the winter months, I believe that there is an even greater contributing factor to our state of lethargy, low affect, and to feeling unmotivated and depressed.  Our environment and climate are important contributing factors, but there is a human element that plays an important role in whether we get excited about what the winter can offer, OR despondent and depressed.

“How you think about the weather (or anything else in life) affects your overall mood state.”  – dorothy ratusny

To help you best strategize in those moments when you are feeling the winter blues “effects”, begin with some simple questions.

Ask yourself, “What was I just thinking?”  “What am I saying to myself right now?” or “What are my thoughts?”

Your thoughts determine how you feel.  Your actions (what you do or don’t do) are fuelled by how you feel. This Cognitive Therapy principle is the same for all of us.

Thoughts -> Feelings -> Behaviours

As the busyness and fun of the year end holidays come to a close, you’re left with the reality of what your life truly is at this moment.  If there are some major issues that you’ve been avoiding, or if you’ve been increasingly unhappy with your life, it’s natural to feel a dip in your overall mood state once you return to your daily routine and are faced with the same challenges that you’ve had some reprieve from.

Typical life events – including responsibilities, bills, and a hectic schedule that perhaps leaves little time for fun and pure enjoyment, can cause negative” feelings (e.g. anxiety, worry, sadness – even hopelessness) that seem to come out of nowhere. Many people cope by finding new distractions to avoid feeling unhappy.  We can busy ourselves with other activities, a demanding work life, or the temporary escape of a winter getaway; but in doing so, we never really address the deeper issues – the origin – of our current unhappy state.

For most of us, its difficult to sit still and contemplate our unhappiness.  As we feel waves of anxiety, dread, or sadness, our instinct is to immediately “stop” these feelings.  We don’t always understand from where our feelings originate, making it difficult to address the cause or origin.  Our initial reaction if we don’t know how to make ourselves ‘feel better’, is to ignore or avoid what we feel in hopes that this will somehow make our sad or anxious feelings go away.  The moment we stop doing whatever has made us “busy” in order to distract us from how we feel, the sadness, anxiety (or any other uncomfortable feeling) returns.  Each time we suppress or avoid how we truly feel, we become further disconnected from understanding the real problem – and the cause of our unhappiness.

I remind clients that feeling sad only persists when we avoid looking at what thoughts caused us to feel sad.  Our sadness may be related to a temporary situation which will resolve itself either with our efforts and initiative or as a result of other events that unfold naturally. If the sadness we feel is related to our feelings about who we are, and the state of our life, then its important that we address whatever is causing us to feel unhappy.  If we can use the same Cognitive Therapy Principles whether for seasonal affective disorder, or any other type of low grade sadness (and other uncomfortable emotions), then we have a means of feeling better. Identifying your thoughts is like uncovering the source of your unhappiness.  What you tell yourself (whether true or untrue) is what you believe.

If you’re feeling discouraged, unhappy, or hopeless with the state of your life, it’s because your life doesn’t accurately reflect what you truly want. (Interestingly enough, your life currently DOES reflect what you believe and what you’ve been thinking about most – including what you fear).  When clients describe feeling unhappy with aspects of their life and with who they are, I remind them of the power of their conscious thought. What you consistently tell yourself is the truth behind the reality that you are living.

We all need to choose our thoughts carefully.

Who you are and how you live life is based on your thoughts and beliefs.  When you feel the ‘Winter Blues’ or sadness in general, pay attention to your state of mind.  Are you focusing on what you don’t yet have or what you want most?  Are you focusing on what you don’t yet see or have in front of you? Most importantly, are you ruminating about your current life situation and the aspects of yourself you are unhappy about, which in the very next moment effectively becomes the past and beyond your control?

The following STRATEGIES are MOST effective for banishing the Winter Blues.  These strategies are based on applying the Cognitive Therapy (CBT) principles that have been proven to be MOST effective in alleviating sadness and any other uncomfortable emotion.  Please remember, this is an approach that you need to use in order for it to work. Be prepared that you will need to pay attention to your thoughts (the internal dialogue of what you say to yourself) far more than you are used to.  Like any other skill that you acquire with practice, attention to your thoughts allows you to reap the benefits of changing how you feel. You can only change your thoughts once you become aware of what it is that you are telling yourself.

In a recent study, Cognitive therapy (CBT) was found to be more effective at treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) than light therapy (a standard and well proven method of treatment).  In fact, CBT was significantly better at preventing relapse in future winters, the study found. Led by University of Vermont psychology professor Kelly Rohan, the research initiative, funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, is the first large scale study to examine light therapy’s effectiveness over time.

“Light therapy is a palliative treatment, like blood pressure medication, that requires you to keep using the treatment for it to be effective,” said Rohan. “Adhering to the light therapy prescription upon waking for 30 minutes to an hour every day for up to five months in dark states can be burdensome,” she said.

The study showed that, by the second winter, only 30 percent of light therapy subjects were still using the equipment.

Cognitive-behavior therapy, by contrast, is a preventive treatment, Rohan said. Once SAD sufferers learn its basic skills it has enduring impact, giving the person a sense of control over their symptoms.

STEP ONE: Decide how YOU want to be, and also what you want for your ideal life.  Begin with what you know right now.  You can always add to your ‘desire’ list as you decide more of what you want.

In STEP ONE I encourage you to carve out ‘alone time’ to be quiet and introspective.  Make a list of what you want for your life and how you want to be (based on what you know now). I encourage clients to call this list: ‘WHO AM I BECOMING?’  This list reflects the person (and the life) that you have  always wanted but perhaps did not truly believe it was possible.  As you identify a list that yields the definition of your ideal self (and your ideal life), you now have a destination that you can begin moving towards.  Being committed to your WHO AM I BECOMING? list helps you to be accountable and to make healthy ‘right’ decisions that will support what you desire most.

We feel a chronic yet low grade level of sadness and a growing disconnection from our SELF if we have been avoiding looking at what needs changing, and then doing the necessary work to make our life (and our self) what we truly want.

Contemplating what it would require to fix your life – making it what you really want when you’ve been living unhappily for so long – can seem largely overwhelming.  When I work with clients, a first step is to help them become  c l e a r  about their goals and desires.  It means examining who they currently are, and what they need to do (hence the “WHO AM I BECOMING?” list) in order to feel better.  If you begin by practising self-honesty as you define what you really want (even when you don’t know all of the steps involved in getting where you want to be), the results are largely positive. Part of the sadness that we feel at different times in our life (and not only as Winter Blues) is due to the lack of clarity about what we truly want.  STEP ONE is about getting clear and stating what you desire most.

STEP TWO: With clarity about what you want, begin to move towards this using well defined ACTION STEPS.

Create action steps for each of your highest level (the biggest, all-encompassing) goals.  This will help to make the goals manageable as ‘steps’ and it outlines the practical need for daily work in the ‘here and now’ as you stay focused on the bigger picture.  Action steps also remind you that every decision you make beginning with NOW will either bring you closer to or further away from your highest ideals.

Notice how much better you begin to feel when you have a clear plan in place of how you will be different including what you are prepared to do towards this.wwwlauradbeancom

STEP THREE can be a ‘mind bender’.  It requires that you keep up both STEPS ONE and TWO while b e l i e v i n g that you already are living the life that you desire most; and that you already are the person that you most want to be.  I love this part!

STEP THREE is about believing in what you can’t fully see yet.  It truly is an act of manifesting.

STEP THREE is the practise of seeing and believing in what you truly want even though it is not (yet) visible to you in the physical world.  It’s about never giving up on what you want; rather – consistently taking the steps towards your highest ideals and goals (and trusting that they are coming to you as long as you still desire them).  Being consistently clear about what it is you desire AND living your life as if it were already what you want is the STEP that most of us have trouble with.  And yet, its one of the most powerful things that we can do to bring what we truly want into our lives – and quickly!

Each strategy comprised as “steps” is based in CBT principles (together with the Universal Laws that govern manifesting).  And what I am sharing – really works!  It’s important that you begin with a closer look at your existing ‘self-talk’ (to see what is in part causing your unhappiness), and then focus on what you really want for your life rather than what you don’t yet see or have.  The THREE STEPS as I have defined them here are a way of  l i v i n g  life.  It isn’t a one-time formula but a practical way of being.  These strategies help you understand the power of your mind and how you need to be consciously aware of what you tell yourself.

Finding one or more of these steps a challenge? Unsure of what you want? Feeling stuck in how to move forward even though you know what you ideal self looks like?  Let me be of help. To be in touch or to work with me, please contact me at: mail@dorothyratusny.com  Thankyou!!

  1. For a full read of the published study on the superior effects of CBT in the treatment of SAD, click the link above or visit: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151105084516.htm
  2. Understanding why Nature makes us Feel Better  http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/05/22/science-nature-emotion-affect-feel-better/
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