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SAD and Chronic Pain: 4 Ways to Thrive This Winter

When even the thought of hot chocolate on a snowy day isn’t enough to cure your SAD (seasonal affective disorder), maybe it’s time to make some changes. Not only can the winter negatively affect your mood, it can also cause more serious issues, like extreme weight gain and full-blown depression.

One in four people suffer from the winter blues, that awful combination of food cravings, dysthymia and fatigue. And the farther north you go, the higher that percentage goes, from only 1 percent in Florida to more than 50 percent in the northern United States.

In some people, especially those already suffering from depression, SAD can cause an even bluer mood, weight gain from uncontrolled bingeing and isolation from friends and family.

Unfortunately chronic pain can make other conditions worse, or can be made worse by other conditions. SAD can be related to chronic pain conditions, just as depression can. And if you already experience a chronic pain condition, the symptoms of that condition can be worse than usual, or can make symptoms of SAD even more severe.

Here are four ways you can beat the winter blues:

1. Go Toward the Light

Winter’s darker days throw our circadian rhythms into a tailspin. And the lack of light triggers our bear instincts, making us want to go into our caves and hibernate. At this time of year, there are between two and four hours less sunlight a day, which means we’re fighting our bodies’ natural tendencies to sleep and eat more.

One solution is to soak up as much sunlight as we can. Getting natural light can be difficult, especially on cold days. But if the weather allows it, being outside (even on a gray day) for 30 minutes exposes us to enough light to trigger Vitamin D production, which boosts the brain’s emotional center.

Since windows and windshields are typically coated to control light, driving and window gazing don’t have the same effect. Neither does indoor light. One proven way to improve mood is to buy a light box that delivers at least 10,000 lux. (These range from $40-$400, depending on size and illumination.) This can yield substantial relief for SAD sufferers, and can also help decrease mild-to-moderate depression. The trick with any kind of light exposure is to get it first thing in the morning, which is when the body is hard-wired for light to activate the body clock.

2. Feel Better by Doing Good

One surprising antidote for SAD? Altruism. A study by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman and his team, found that giving money away stimulates the same pleasure centers in the brain as sugar and sex. We now know that the brain is built for generosity, and that giving back can be a direct antidote for depression. You may have already experienced the joy of giving as a way to distract from chronic pain.

3. Get Off the Sugar Roller Coaster

Speaking of sugar, there’s a reason you’re craving it, and it’s not because you’re weak. Sugar and white-flour products affect the same biochemical systems in your body as heroin. Our relationship to sweets operates at a cellular level, and is more powerful than we realize.

But eating more in winter is part of our brain’s natural survival mechanism, and when you add in the winter blues, it makes us crave the sunshiney lift that only sugar can give. So for one-fourth of the year, how do we fight instinct?

It all goes back to light. When light enters the eye and activates our body clock, it can curb cravings. A 1981 study on how light affects depression, by Daniel F. Kripke, M.D., found that our body clock is connected to the part of the brain that controls appetite. So getting more light not only increases vitamin D and positively impacts the brain’s emotional center, it can also help you put down that chocolate chip cookie.

4. Fly South

Sometimes the cure for winter is less winter. And while not everyone’s schedule and budget can afford a full mid-winter vacation to a sunny climate, sometimes a long weekend is enough to get you through till spring.

Consider moving your annual vacation to December or January, when the kids are on winter break. Or take advantage of discount programs like Groupon to enjoy a long weekend at the beach. Sometimes taking a break to someplace where sunshine is abundant is just what the doctor ordered.

For more advice to make it through the winter, read our article Cold Weather and Pain.

If you experience SAD, please let us know how you deal with it and how it relates to your chronic pain.

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways is the first, only and ultimate pain magazine. First published in spring 2008, PainPathways is the culmination of the vision of Richard L. Rauck, MD, to provide a shared resource for people living with and caring for others in pain. This quarterly resource not only provides in-depth information on current treatments, therapies and research studies but also connects people who live with pain, both personally and professionally.

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