As the seasons begin to change from autumn into winter and the clocks roll back, many people often begin to describe feeling sad, unmotivated, or even depressed. These feelings are not uncommon, but it can be difficult to tell if what you are feeling are normal winter blues. For some people, their feelings during winter can begin to interfere with day-to-day living. In these situations, the person might be dealing with a condition called seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) was first described in 1984 by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, and involves similar symptoms to that of major depressive disorder (e.g., prolonged feelings of sadness, fatigue and low levels of energy, difficulty concentrating, irritability, increased or decreased sleeping or eating habits). However, the symptoms tend to occur in the winter months, often beginning to develop in October or November, and lasting until March or April.
Seasonal Affective or Winter Blues?
It’s important to first understand what contributes to the symptoms. Depression is often described as a biological, chemical problem, and the chemical changes in the brain during periods of depression are indeed significant. However, the behavioral changes involved during these periods also play a major role in maintaining or worsening these symptoms, and can be an easier place to begin intervention. If you have any concerns that how you are feeling in the winter might be seasonal affective disorder or depression, tell friends, family, your doctor, and reach out to a mental health professional. If you are certain that you are just grappling with winter blues as many of us do when weather starts to turn cold, here are five suggestions that might help beat them.
1. Light Box Therapy
Winter means shorter days, and shorter days means less light. This impact the brain in a big way—affecting circadian rhythms and production of neurotransmitters that keep the brain functioning optimally. Additionally, the shorter days of winter can easily promote hypersomnia (or increased sleeping) by making getting out of bed even more difficult. Light therapy is one way of addressing this. In light therapy, bright light boxes that mimic outdoor light are used daily for 20-30 minutes a day to help decrease some of these symptoms by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which plays a role in maintaining the body’s circadian rhythms. By using a light box (typically early in the morning, or even just after waking up), you can artificially counteract some of the damaging effects that the shorter days of winter may bring about. Light therapy has been shown to be an effective way of addressing some of the seasonal symptoms of this form of depression, but is not effective for everyone, and should be used in conjunction with other forms of treatment.
Try using a digital timer in conjunction with a bright lamp in your bedroom to light up when the sun rises (or even just before it does) to help getting out of bed in the morning. Sometimes waking up to light is more pleasant that the harsh noises of an alarm clock. There are alarm clocks that also can also work to simulate the sunrise in such a way that can help keep your body running on your normal schedule.
2. Stay Social
Winter means cold weather, cold weather means ice and snow, and ice and snow mean that we are going to be more inclined to stay inside with hot chocolate and a book than going out with our friends. For some, this sounds great—a relaxing evening at home can be a great way to relax and recuperate after a stressful week. However, disconnecting from social support systems can majorly exacerbate prolonged feelings of sadness. When the winter blues begin to set in, it may be time to bundle up and get out of the house. Stay connected with those that recharge you, and make an effort to continue engaging in those things that bring you happiness.
SAD is, at its core, a seasonal form of depression. As such, many of the same things that can help combat the symptoms of depression are effective at attenuating the symptoms of SAD. Exercise is a great option for this, but can be difficult in the winter months because of the cold weather. Consider exercising indoors during the winter months—lifting weights, running on a treadmill, or playing a pickup game of basketball at your local indoor court can be a great way of getting the body moving and finding some more energy to offset the lethargy that often sets in during this time of year. Yoga is also a great option for indoor exercise, and some may find it especially helpful because of the dual focus on both the body and the mind.
4. Get out of your “comfort zone”
People tend to think of spring and summer as the most active seasons of the year. The sun is out, flowers are blooming, and there are a plethora of readily available outdoor activities. Conversely, many people associate winter with “hunkering down” and less activity. Winter blues are at their worst when people are just “waiting out” the weather until the earth tilts a little closer to the Sun. However, winter can be a great time to try something new. Creative/artistic/musical activities are great for winter months. Never played the harmonica or held a paintbrush before? Who cares! Sign up for a class and go for it! The object isn’t to be the best at something, it’s about staying engaged and not mentally shutting down personal growth just because it is cold outside. Not into the arts? Take a class in an area of interest, pick up a new hobby that takes you out of the house, or volunteer at a local organization. Whether it is learning a new skill, gaining new knowledge, or engaging in a recreational hobby, it’s important to press against the desire to stay in your comfort zone cocooned at home.
5. Talk to a therapist
For some, the winter blues means that you’re more likely to feel a little blue or lethargic during the winter months, but for others the winter blues can really impact aspects of their everyday life. The decision to reach out to a therapist can be difficult. Many people try to “tough out” the winter months, but there are a variety of ways that therapists work with people to make “toughing out” the winter months less tough. Whether your feelings meet a diagnosis of SAD or not, the depressive feelings and their related symptoms matter, and should be brought up with a mental health professional that can help explore options that might specifically be helpful for you.
About the Author: Daniel graduated from Roosevelt with his masters in clinical psychology in 2016 and has practiced as a therapist under supervision for over a year. He has been writing for Bergen Counseling Center since 2016, and his areas of special interest include intimate and familial relationships, trauma, shame, grief and loss, and issues related to individuation and identity development.
This article is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for therapy with a trained mental health professional. Any products/services mentioned may be purchased from a variety of retailers. Bergen Counseling Center does not endorse any specific product or service.