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Being happy in the U.P. despite SAD

ESCANABA — In the Upper Peninsula, winters are long-lasting and sunlight during the season is scarce — factors that may have a negative impact on the mental health of many people living in the area. However, there are steps local residents can take to mitigate this.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner for Pathways Community Mental Health Patty Webber said she believes seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is “very common” in the U.P. compared to other parts of the country.

“We live in the Upper Peninsula, and we have shorter days and longer winters,” she said.

Frequent cloud cover may also contribute to the mental health issues experienced by people with SAD locally.

“We have so many cloudy days because of the lake effect,” Webber said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD is a variant of depression tied to changing seasons. For the majority of people with SAD, this means they are affected by the disorder during the fall and winter months. Though the disorder’s exact cause is still a mystery, decreased levels of sunlight late and early in the year — which can affect people’s circadian rhythms and serotonin levels — could play a role.

Symptoms of SAD include depressed mood, sleep problems, appetite and/or weight changes, agitation and lethargy.

“I call it ‘hibernation syndrome,'” Webber said.

Webber said SAD can manifest in a number of ways. Although some people with SAD experience severe depression, this is not the case for everyone living with the disorder.

“Some people have it and they notice their mood is just not as good as it is in the summertime,” she said.

At Pathways, Webber works with people who have mental and mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. While her patients do not have SAD as a primary diagnosis, she said she often sees signs of the disorder.

“Even if they have those mental illnesses, their moods drop in the winter most of the time,” she said.

Typically, Webber said her patients’ moods begin to decline in September or October and continue getting worse throughout the winter. They begin to improve when spring arrives.

Though SAD is far from unusual in the U.P., Webber said there are many things those who suspect they have the disorder can do to improve their state of mind.

“We know that one of the best antidepressants there is is exercise,” she said.

People can even combine their exercise routine with extra exposure to sunlight if they are willing to deal with the area’s cold winter weather.

“Light does help, so … people can get up early and go for a walk,” Webber said.

Because the sun sets so early in the area at this time of year, people with SAD can also increase their exposure to sunlight by not sleeping in too late.

If this is not enough, people can look into purchasing a “light box” to simulate additional exposure to sunlight. Users of these products can maximize their effectiveness by using them early in the day.

“Usually, it’s best if you’re going to use them to also use them in the morning,” Webber said.

Webber also listed yoga and meditation as activities that may lift peoples’ moods during the fall and winter.

While these tips can help many people in the U.P. cope with the winter blues, they may not be enough for those dealing with thoughts of suicide and other serious symptoms.

“If it turns into significant depression, they should see their doctor,” Webber said.

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