If colder weather and shorter days cause you to feel the winter blues, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon to experience fatigue, sadness, difficulty concentrating, and a disruption in your sleep schedule during the winter season.
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.
The winter blues—or symptoms of low-level sadness lasting through the winter months—is not the same as seasonal affective disorder, but it can still take a toll on your physical and mental health. And while you can’t change the season, interventions like exercise, light therapy, motivation techniques, and better sleep hygiene can help. However, if symptoms worsen or persist, it may be time to seek support from your doctor or mental healthcare provider.
Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder
- 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 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 that is not just sadness. “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.
10 Tips to Help Beat the Winter Blues
1.) 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, 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.
2.) 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.
3.) 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 cortisol rhythms and impacts hormone production.
To improve your sleep, Donahue recommends:
- 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.
4.) Do Some Physical Activity
Physical activity has been shown to boost mood, decrease the symptoms of depression, and reduce stress. 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.
5.) Try the 10x10x10 Plan
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. Take one walk in the morning, another in the early afternoon, and one before it gets dark.
6.) 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 taught us anything, it is that human contact and socialization is important to our mental health,” Gaveras says.
7.) 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.
8.) Light Therapy
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.
9.) 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 is highly recommended to treat depressive disorders and would likely benefit any individual suffering from SAD.
10.) Consider Medication
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 has also approved the use of bupropion, another type of antidepressant, for treating SAD.