The “winter blues” can be a common reaction to different factors, including holiday stress, colder temperatures, and fewer hours of daylight. The stretch of time between fall and spring can bring about boredom, restlessness, and an overall feeling of discontent. Overcome winter blues by staying active, reaching out to friends and family, and trying to keep a positive attitude. However, seasonal depression (also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder) is very similar to clinical depression. It is triggered often in autumn and can last until late winter/early spring.
How to Beat the Winter Blues
If the colder weather and shorter days are causing you to feel the winter blues, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon this time of the year, to experience fatigue, sadness, difficulty concentrating, and a disruption in your sleep schedule.
For some, this mood change is temporary and easily managed with lifestyle modifications. But for others, the winter blues can turn into a more severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder or SAD. The good news? There are things you can do to beat the winter blues.
Symptoms of seasonal depression include feeling down, depressed, or hopeless. You might have low motivation to do things or feel a lack of pleasure doing things. You might want to withdraw socially, or have difficulty finding things to do that make you happy. Other symptoms of depression can be sleeping too little or too much, feeling restless, having thoughts of self-harm, or wishing you were dead.
Despite the fact that millions of us say we’ve suffered a winter-related low mood, it can feel as though the winter blues is just a myth. But there’s sound scientific evidence to support the idea that the season can affect our moods.
Most scientists believe that the problem is related to the way the body responds to daylight. Alison Kerry, from the mental health charity MIND, says: “With SAD, one theory is that light entering the eye causes changes in hormone levels in the body. In our bodies, light functions to stop the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, making us wake up.
“It’s thought that SAD sufferers are affected by shorter daylight hours in the winter. They produce higher melatonin, causing lethargy and symptoms of depression.”
If you’re going through a bout of winter blues, lack of daylight is probably playing a part.
Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder
According to Georgia Gaveras, DO, Chief Psychiatrist and Co-Founder of Talkiatry, the main difference between the winter blues and SAD has to do with severity and function. It’s just like “sadness” vs. “depression.”
- Sadness during the fall and winter months
- Some trouble sleeping
- Lack of motivation
- Severe sadness during the fall and winter months
- Frequent sleep and eating issues
- Depression that limits normal functioning and motivation
“People feel sad sometimes, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, having emotions is part of what makes us all human and not something that we want to extinguish,” says Gaveras.
Feeling sad or down sometimes, especially during the winter months, could be a sign of the winter blues. However, when sadness interferes with your ability to function in your daily life, it could be a sign of something more serious.
For many people, Gaveras says the fall and winter months precipitate some gloom and sadness, and a lot of that is related to the lack of sunlight.
“During the winter months, people leave their home in the dark, spend all day in an office with no windows, and then leave work to commute home again, in the dark. That can affect most people’s dispositions,” she says.
If you’re working from home, and not getting outdoors before work or during your lunch hour, you may not be leaving your home at all now that it turns dark earlier.
SAD is a more complex disorder where it’s not just sadness or the winter blues. “People with SAD exhibit signs of a major depressive disorder including difficulty with sleeping and eating, which can come with noticeable fluctuations in energy levels and weight,” Gaveras says.
You may also begin to isolate yourself and experience anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy things that typically bring happiness. “This can get severe enough where you may start to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs and even have ideas of self-harm or suicide,” she says.
If the symptoms get this severe, it’s crucial to seek professional mental health services immediately.
10 Tips to Help Beat the Winter Blues
Like many other mood disorders, you can take action to lessen the severity of the symptoms associated with SAD or the winter blues.
While you may not be able to change the weather or amount of daylight during the winter, you can practice good self-care to help you feel better. Here are 10 strategies you can try to beat the winter blues.
Take a Break From the News
Being indoors more often means an increase in screen time. And if this time is spent consuming a non-stop news cycle, you may feel an increase in the winter blues.
To help minimize stress, sadness, and despair from the news, especially as it relates to COVID-19, try to limit the amount of time you spend in front of a screen. If possible, schedule one hour for news. You can watch this in one sitting or break it up into chunks.
Boost Your Mood with Food
A simple change to boost your mood is to consider the food you eat. Consuming protein with breakfast, lunch, and dinner can enhance mood and prevent sugar and carb cravings later in the day.
Also, including foods high in vitamin D such as fatty fish, fish oil, and vitamin D fortified foods like milk, orange juice, breakfast cereal, yogurt, and other food sources can help balance mood.
According to one meta-analysis, researchers found that people with depression have low vitamin D levels, while people with low vitamin D are at a greater risk of depression.
If you are not getting enough vitamin D in your diet or through sunlight, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement, especially in the winter months.
Keep Up Your Sleep Routine
Sleep is a huge component of mood. Without adequate, regular sleep, psychologist Kelly Donahue, PhD, says our circadian rhythm can get disrupted, which also disrupts our cortisol rhythms and impacts hormone production.
Here are a few tips Donahue recommends to improve your sleep:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- Follow a simple bedtime routine that signals rest, such as taking a bath, turning down the lights, or drinking a cup of herbal tea
- Expose yourself to light as soon as you wake up
- Sleep in a cool, dark room
- Don’t use electronics in your bedroom
- Write all of your worry thoughts on a piece of paper before bed so that if you wake up in the night, you can tell your mind you don’t need to worry because the thoughts are captured on paper and will be waiting for you to tackle in the morning
Do Some Physical Activity
Physical activity has been shown to boost mood, decrease the symptoms of depression, and reduce stress.3
Start slowly and build up to 30 to 60 minutes a day, five days a week, of aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga, or other fitness-related activities.
Getting outside daily, even for a few minutes a day, can make a huge impact on your mood and help target the specific symptoms of SAD related to a lack of daylight.
Try the 10x10x10 Rule
It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed, lethargic, and unmotivated to exercise when feeling depressed. So, instead of committing to one longer workout, break the time up into chunks.
For example, if your goal is to walk 30 minutes a day, divide the time into three mini-workouts of 10-minutes each. One walk in the morning, another in the early afternoon, and one before it gets dark.
Call On Your Support System
Loneliness and isolation tend to make the effects of the winter blues worse. That’s why your support system which may include friends, family, co-workers, and sponsors, should be on speed dial.
“If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that human contact and socialization is important to our mental health,” Gaveras says.
And when you are dealing with the winter blues, finding a way to safely spend time with supportive people is key to boosting your mood. This may include walks outdoors, talking on the phone, or virtual coffee dates.
Seek Out the Sun
Getting outside needs to be a priority during the winter months. Since SAD symptoms are worsened by a lack of sun exposure, soaking up the sun—even in winter temperatures—is critical.
Being in the sunlight helps balance serotonin activity, increases melatonin production, balances your circadian rhythm, and increases vitamin D levels, which can lead to an improved emotional state.
If you cannot get outdoors, move a chair, work station, or kitchen table next to a window that gets sunlight. Aim to sit in this location for at least one to two hours a day. If one sitting is not possible, break the time into shorter chunks throughout the daytime hours.
If you’re not finding relief from some of the more low-level interventions, you may want to consider light therapy. This form of treatment is common for people diagnosed with SAD.
The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) recommends sitting in front of a light box, first thing in the morning, for 20 to 60 minutes. Light boxes usually provide 10,000 lux (lux is a light intensity measurement). This should be done from early fall until spring.
Seek Professional Help
If lifestyle modifications and other low-level interventions do not provide enough relief from the winter blues, consider seeking professional help.
Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” is highly recommended to treat depressive disorders and would likely benefit any individual suffering from SAD.
More specifically, the NIMH says cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven to be very effective in treating SAD.
Your doctor or a mental health professional may recommend a medication for mood disorders if you are experiencing more than the winter blues. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often used to treat SAD. The Federal Drug Administration also approved the use of bupropion, another type of antidepressant, for treating SAD
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American Psychological Association. The exercise effect. December 2011.
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National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder. n.d.
Niemegeers P, Dumont G, Patteet L, Neels H, Sabbe B. Bupropion for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Expert Opin Drug Metab Toxicol. 2013 Sep;9(9):1229-40.doi: 10.1517/17425255.2013.804062