How to Fight the Winter Blues

Cheryl Lim, LMHC-LP January 8, 2021

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects up to 20% of people each year. Because of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to take care of our mental health this winter. Here are some ways to combat the winter blues.

Are you one of the many people who feel like their mental health is "fine" or "good" throughout the year but feel more negative and depressed during the winter? Do you find that once the days turn darker, your mood seems to follow? It is not uncommon for people to experience a day or two, here and there, of low mood; however, if it becomes a persistent state, it might be time to consider the possibility that something more is happening.

It is not uncommon to experience a reduction in activity and a change in mood when the amount of daylight fades in the winter— we all have our own form of hibernation. When our hibernation starts to have a prolonged effect on our mood and quality of life, it might be signs that we are experiencing the "winter blues" or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Mild forms of the winter blues affect up to 20% of people each year. Though, given the pandemic's lasting impact and how difficult 2020 was for all of us, that percentage may increase this year.  

Symptoms of SAD can range from feeling down and having low energy to increased agitation and irritability. You may experience a loss of interest in hobbies, a withdrawal from social interaction, and reduced libido. To add to the mix, issues related to sleep hygiene and quality will often also appear. 

For many people, the symptoms mirror those associated with depression. According to publications from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD affects millions of people annually, with those managing underlying mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder more susceptible to the condition.

If this is a reality you face, you might be wondering how you ended up in this place. There are a couple of contributing factors: 

  1. Decreased exercise.
  2. Decreased access to sunlight, which causes lower Vitamin D production in our bodies.
  3. Increased isolation due to cold weather.

Although we don't have hard science on what causes SAD, the research indicates that the condition is closely tied to a reduction in serotonin levels, an increase in melatonin, and the disruption of the natural circadian rhythm brought on by earlier sunsets. For those of us living in NYC, where the sun sets at 4:30, and most of the sunlight is blocked by skyscrapers, this is particularly pertinent.

Since we cannot escape winter, how do we manage this? Here are some tips for those of us who find ourselves wrestling with SAD (and tips to improve mood and wellbeing in the winter for anyone!) 

Meditation

Meditation has been known to reduce anxiety and promote positive emotions. Those who meditate regularly report reduction of stress/anxiety, increased patience and calm, increased attention span, better quality sleep, improved mood, and decreased irritability. Taking up meditation is easier than it's ever been. Here are some great apps to consider. 

Physical Activity

Exercise can improve immune systems and promote a sense of accomplishment. Exercising can enhance sleep quality, improve self-esteem, relieve stress, boost mood, and has been reported to improve memory. To combat lack of energy or motivation, invite a friend to help you with accountability or a friend who can help you through this slump! 

Going Outside in Nature

The positive effects and importance of natural light and fresh air has been more apparent than ever as we go through this pandemic. While venturing outside may be more difficult during the winter, it may be possible to partake in outdoor activities such as skiing, snowboarding, sledding, or even caroling! Interacting with natural spaces offers other therapeutic benefits in addition to improving mood. 

Work on Sleep Hygiene 

SAD can make you feel so tired you want to hibernate. Sleep hygiene is the good sleep habits that improve your sleep health and ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and experience better quality sleep. This involves avoiding large meals, caffeine, or alcohol close to bedtime, sleeping and waking up at a consistent time, stopping the use of electronics two hours before bedtime, avoiding naps, and getting enough exercise. You may also benefit from keeping a sleep diary to track your progress. 

Social Interaction and Support

Strong social connection and support is known to be a protective factor from many types of mental stressors. It is one of the larger influences on our mood. Set aside time and try to interact with your loved ones! Giving and receiving acts of kindness can greatly improve our sense of happiness and closeness. 

Return to Hobbies 

While it may be hard to return to activities when you feel a lack of interest in your former hobbies, it may be worth trying anyway. Sometimes the way of reconnecting with your passions is to start slowly until you get back into the swing of it. You might even recruit a friend/family member to devote some time to this hobby with you. The positive reinforcement we gain from doing this hobby again can be a great motivator to encourage us next time. Instead of knitting an entire blanket, start with a small handkerchief! If you do not have the energy to bake from scratch, start with the box mix! 

Pay Attention to Health and Diet

Making healthier choices like eating and getting enough rest are also essential aspects of promoting physical wellness. It is important to go for a full check-up to treat any other conditions you may be struggling to take care of and be on top of any vitamins, supplements, or minerals you need. 

Phototherapy or Light Therapy 

Phototherapy or Light Therapy is used by many to treat SAD or the winter blues. This is a safe option for those with no other health conditions, and you may want to consult with a professional about this form of treatment. Additionally, Chronotherapy (changing sleeping and waking times to reset the patient's biological clock) can also be used to treat the sleep dysfunction aspect of SAD. 

While these are all solid suggestions, we know that when dealing with a mood disorder (seasonal or otherwise), actions like these might feel like one more thing you have to do, added to a long list of the insurmountable. Do what you can and what comes naturally for you.

If you find that you are still battling the winter blues despite your best efforts to cope, it may be time to get support from a professional outside your immediate circle. We are here to help. 

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