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Snow Psychology: Wicked Winter Ups America’s ‘Misery Index’

Whether you’ve been hit by the polar vortex, punched by an Arctic blast, snowed in, iced over, frozen in place, left powerless or stuck at home, new research confirms it’s been a particularly fierce winter for most of the country, leaving many people in a state of general malaise.

"I normally enjoy all four seasons, but this winter has been mind-numbingly brutal," said Rick Rottman, who lives in Hagerstown, Md. "I can't count how many times it's snowed."

Mental health experts say they’re hearing much more grumbling about the winter season than usual this year, with patients struggling with lower mood, cabin fever and a sense of hopelessness. And a weather report nicknamed the "misery index" shows they have good reason: The winter of 2014 is one of the most miserable on record.

"I do not care if I see another snowflake in my whole entire life. Seriously," said Sherrie Powell of Paducah, Ky.

Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York psychiatrist and TODAY contributor, says winter weather whining has become a constant refrain in her practice and around town.

“What earlier in the season was like, ‘Oh, it’s supposed to snow’ is now as though someone is striking them down with another punishment," Saltz said. "The feeling is that your life is continually being interrupted. You can’t count on the kids going to school, the store being open, your car being able to get out of the driveway – there’s more work made for you.”

There’s also a feeling of unfairness that winter lingers when it should be over already, leaving people frustrated and angry, Saltz added.

And many of those complaints are completely justifiable. The American Red Cross has said that winter weather has caused blood drive cancellations, and some schools, like Conestoga Valley High School in Pensylvania, have had enough snow days that their graduation dates have needed to be pushed back.

Hope springs eternal after record-breaking winter 2:44

Researchers behind the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index — which some have dubbed the winter “misery index” — confirm this season has ranged from severe to extreme in almost every location they have studied.

The index takes into account temperatures, snowfall, and snow depth in two dozen cities across the U.S to assign a "score" to each day of winter, said co-creator Barbara Mayes Boustead, a forecaster at the National Weather Service. That score is tallied every day to give a grade that represents the severity or mildness of a winter season.

Boustead, who started the project last summer, has investigated every winter since 1950 and found Detroit is having its most severe winter to date. Milwaukee and Moline, Ill., are experiencing their second-worst winter in more than 60 years, she said.

“A lot of the sites, especially the more extreme ones, are having a winter this year that compares to the more severe ones of the late 1970s and early 1980s,” Boustead said. “Most areas have had a downward trend in winter severity, especially when looking at temperatures, so… (this) feels quite a bit more abrupt now.”

In comparison, last year was a mixed bag, ranging from mild to severe, while the winter of 2011-12 ranked in the mild category at nearly every site, she said. For the record, Boustead prefers not to call her creation the misery index because she doesn’t want to “express judgment on the winter.”

Many others don’t have that problem, openly complaining about the brutal conditions and dealing with the winter blues, said Shilagh Mirgain, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.

“People are really struggling… and just feeling that lower mood, lower energy and even lower motivation,” Mirgain said.

“A lot of people are saying that it feels never ending. This year especially, were not having those breaks in the winter — a slightly warmer day where things are melting. That instead it almost feels like it’s one polar vortex after another.”

People who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that tends to show up during the cold, dark days of the winter months, may be affected even more this year, added Saltz. Symptoms can include fatigue, weight gain and lack of interest in socializing or other activities.

Tensions can also be higher for families who are cooped up with children when snow forces schools to close yet again, leaving parents to deal with bored and antsy kids, she added.

To combat winter blues, Saltz and Mirgain advised resisting the tendency to “hibernate” — or stay sedentary and isolated.

“Movement and social connection are very important,” Mirgain said. “Both exercise and social support are protective against depression and can give you an improvement in mood.”

Daylight saving time starts this weekend and that will make some people feel better even if the weather stays cold and snowy, Saltz added.

“If you can take advantage of the later light and be outside, it probably will boost your mood,” she said. “And you know, summer has to come.”

Melissa Dahl contributed to this report.