Exercise, getting together with friends, exposure to light all help winter blues

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TORONTO - Whether or not you subscribe to a claim that the most depressing day of the year occurs on the third Monday of January, it's not a bad time to take stock and address the winter blues if you're feeling down, experts say.

The designation was actually cooked up in 2005 as part of a publicity campaign by a British travel company urging people to book holidays. Psychologist Cliff Arnall, who practises in Wales, says his formula - criticized in some quarters as being less than scientific - factored in depressing things like looming bills to pay, broken new year's resolutions and bad weather.
Kismet Baun of the Canadian Mental Health Association says it's irresponsible to talk specifically about just one day when mental illness is concerned.
"I think for most people to talk about mental illness, you're really talking about people who suffer on a daily basis, not just one day," says Baun, the association's senior communications adviser.
"We really understand through research and through our policy work that people suffer on a daily basis."
But she acknowledges winter can be a tough time for some people to keep their spirits up, and says there's a range of approaches that can help, including exercise, getting more sunshine or light in your life and planning activities.
"Pressures do build for people," says Bill Wilkerson, founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health.
"For one thing, coming out of the Christmas holiday where we tend to have the joy of release and relief and the phone stops ringing and the emails stop flowing and we actually have time to calm down and reflect, returning to the harsh realities of the email overload world we live in can be a hard adjustment," says Wilkerson, who lives in Port Hope, Ont.
"It can produce emotional roller-coaster rides that people have a hard time coping with."
In an attempt to find out what gets people down in Canada, a private college in Ontario commissioned a survey that found the economy, work, family matters and the threat of illness all contributed to the blues this past year.
The survey by Harris-Decima for Everest College, which has 17 campuses across the province, indicated that the biggest cause of the blues among employed Canadians was the economy, at 29 per cent, and work - at 26 per cent. Family matters, at 15 per cent, and threat of illness, at 14 per cent, also registered.
"I think the biggest celebration New Year's Eve was to close out 2009," says Don Thibert, director of academic affairs at Everest. "I think a lot of people are looking forward to 2010 being a much better year."
"Nearly three-quarters of the people surveyed said that they suffer from at least occasional bouts of workplace blues, and that's up 11 per cent over the three years we've done the survey."
The survey was conducted Dec. 3-6 and questioned 1,009 Canadians, including 599 who were employed. The results are considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
If work is a problem, Thibert suggests keeping a journal for a month and rating each day from one to 10, with one being "completely unbearable" and 10 being "euphorically great."
"If you're coming in six or lower, you might really want to start taking a hard look at a career change," he suggests.
With layoffs rampant in 2009, though, he notes that the key for people last year was just keeping the job they had, even if it didn't provide life-work balance or if it meant the occasional case of workplace blues. He lives in Windsor, Ont., which has been hit hard by job losses in the automotive sector.
Wilkerson says the grinding nature of slow-building distress and worry can eventually produce a physical reaction which takes the form of symptoms of depression.
"The best thing for people to do, if and when the January blues beset them, is first of all not to think this is the first step to a mental illness, but in fact to open their lives first of all to a lot of daylight, to a lot of sunshine," he suggests.
People who overuse computers tend to isolate themselves and become uncommunicative, he says, and it's absolutely critical to talk to neighbours at home and work, and to use the phone to talk to people instead of always relying on email.
Baun agrees with the benefits of getting out to see friends, and using light as therapy if people are suffering seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
"I think to keep moving is a really good way to combat SAD," she says. "If the weather prevents outdoor activity, then walking inside a mall or using indoor facilities such as a swimming pool or a treadmill can produce similar results."
Exercising at home by a window is also a good idea, she says.
"But if you're really suffering from depression ... I wouldn't say to somebody, hey, get up and exercise. Really, they need to go to their physician and take it from there."

Organizations: Everest College, Canadian Mental Health Association, Global Business Everest

Geographic location: TORONTO, Wales, Port Hope Canada Ontario Windsor

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