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Fight winter blues by changing your mindset

November 17, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

We all have a mindset about winter — and what we believe seems to inform our mental health. It's important to address your winter dread — or the blues — since the pandemic shows no signs of abating and playing 6 feet apart outside with others is the safest bet.

"If winter were a place, it would be Tromsø," said Kari Leibowitz, a doctoral student of psychology at Stanford University, who spent a year there for her graduate research.

Leibowitz arrived in the Arctic city hoping to study seasonal affective disorder, the seasonal depression that some experience in the darkest time of year.

"When winter gets more extreme, you should have a higher prevalence of seasonal affective disorder, and you should have worse seasonal affective disorder," Leibowitz said.

But after Leibowitz arrived, her Norwegian graduate adviser explained that in Tromsø, mental health and well-being actually remain pretty stable through the winter.

Her research suggests that SAD isn't just about the dark and cold weather, but something Leibowitz calls "wintertime mindset," an individual's ideas and beliefs about the season.

In Tromsø, where many respondents in Leibowitz's research expressed positive associations with winter, seasonal depression isn't so bad.

"When we follow people after treatment is over for a second year, we have observed better outcomes following CBT relative to light therapy," Rohan said.

In CBT for seasonal depression, Rohan uses a "seasonal beliefs questionnaire," which asks participants to rate their agreement with a series of statements, including "dark, gloomy days are depressing," and "I'm stuck in a rut in the winter. "

In many ways, the "cognitive" part of cognitive behavior therapy aligns with the mindset that Leibowitz studies — and Rohan's research offers a blueprint for how those facing SAD can experience lasting change.

Of course, the Norwegians who Leibowitz met in her year living in Tromsø don't just sit inside thinking about winter.

"People are sort of out and about, dressed up and enjoying winter," Leibowitz said.

But while CBT treatments for seasonal depression do attempt to change your habits — that's the "behavior" part of CBT — Rohan said getting outside isn't a strict requirement for improving your mental health.

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