If you’re feeling blue now that the holidays are over, you’re not alone. Lots of people feel a bit low as the days get darker and colder. But while many experience the winter blues, there are some who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is more severe. SAD can be quite debilitating and can cause feelings of sadness, irritability, sluggishness, and eating and sleep disturbances.
Although it’s likely to be caused by multiple factors, seasonal affective disorder has been most closely linked to lessened exposure to light since the days get shorter and darker throughout the fall and winter. This could lead to a cascade of physiological changes, including a disruption of the circadian rhythms, lower vitamin D levels, dysregulation of serotonin, and overproduction of melatonin. Couple this with post-holiday blues and a dislike of cold temperature, and you may find yourself begging for warmer, longer, sunnier days.
While SAD could affect anybody, the people who are more likely to be affected are female, living farther from the equator, with a personal or family history of depression or bipolar disorder, and younger in age. As a psychiatrist, I screen regularly for SAD in my patients and, over my years of practice, I have discovered many evidence-supported ways to help them maintain their mental health and well-being even over those darkest months. Here are some tried-and-true tips:
1. Recognize your patterns.
As the fall sets in, I've made it a habit to ask my patients about their mood patterns over the past several fall and winter seasons. Upon reflection, many people can start to recognize that their moods worsen during this time frame, and this knowledge is powerful. It enables us to work proactively to structure their winters and plan ahead of time to combat their seasonal blues.
2. Rule out medical causes.
Haven’t gotten around to that annual physical yet? Now might be a good time to visit your doctor. Various medical issues, including viral illnesses and endocrinological disorders such as thyroid dysfunction, can disguise themselves as a low mood in the winter. A lack of certain vitamins can also contribute, as seen below.
3. Try vitamin D.
Low vitamin D levels in particular have been associated with depressive symptoms. Further, vitamin D levels notoriously drop during the winter months. For this reason, many physicians will test your vitamin D levels and may suggest vitamin D supplementation to help boost your mood during the winter.
4. Rethink the winter.
Reframing your thoughts about the wintertime can be quite powerful. Consider the Scandinavian countries, which consistently score as the happiest countries on earth despite contending with long, dark, and cold winters. Many people in the darkest, most northern cities of these regions simply view wintertime differently. It's often seen as a time that is cozy, a time for celebration and togetherness with loved ones. In fact, many actually prefer it to the summertime because of the unique festivals and activities (such as skiing) that can only be enjoyed in the wintertime.
5. Soak up the natural light.
Exposure to natural light can help with your low mood. Bundle up and try to get out of the house, even on cooler days, to get ample exposure to natural light. While in your house, open your shades to allow natural sunlight in. Perching yourself by those windows will give you a little boost from the natural light.
6. Create your own sunlight.
Lightboxes are widely recommended by physicians in the treatment of winter depression. Designed to mimic the sunlight, medical-grade lightboxes also come with UV filters that block out harmful UV rays that are damaging to the skin. A short but consistent 20- to 30-minute exposure to the light created by these lightboxes every morning can be highly effective with minimal side effects for most people. Since lightboxes are not consistently regulated, it’s important to seek a physician’s guidance when choosing one.
7. Seek professional help.
It might be one of the reasons above, but there could also be other explanations for your low mood this time of year. The holidays can stir up difficult family dynamics or feelings of sadness that we are left to contend with after the busyness of the holiday season ends. It can be incredibly powerful and effective to seek a therapist’s assistance in helping to explore and work through these emotions. In particular, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be a powerful treatment option for SAD. A study from the University of Vermont Medical College reveals that cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in treating SAD but also is highly effective in preventing relapses into SAD in subsequent winters.
8. Call a friend.
As the winter wears on, many of us can feel like withdrawing from our social lives. While enjoying cozy time at home may protect us from braving the cold, it can also result in avoidant and isolating behaviors that can leave us feeling lonely and sad. Reaching out to our friends and making sure that our social calendar remains active and fulfilling is a great way to combat those winter blues and help keep us feeling connected and supported.
9. Get moving.
Particularly in the chaos of the holidays, many of us can disrupt our regular exercise schedules and become very sedentary. Exercise is known to be protective for our mood, can lower levels of stress and, for many of us, holds a strong association with mental and physical well-being. While exercising outside gives you the dual benefit of natural-light exposure and physical activity, sometimes the weather can make that impossible. On those days, hitting the gym and, if possible, choosing exercise equipment closer to the window is ideal.
10. Stay structured.
Fight the urge to snooze in bed for that extra hour and instead opt to stick to your normal routine. Having regular sleep-wake times and sticking with your schedule can help to structure your day, keep you feeling productive, and combat the sluggishness that often occurs with the winter blues. Plus, even though our brains might trick us into sleeping for longer hours during those darker days, research has shown that excessive sleep is neither medically or mentally healthy.
11. Avoid these foods.
Certain dietary choices are linked to an increased risk of seasonal affective disorder, and studies are being conducted to examine how changing diet patterns contribute to increasing depressive symptoms, for example, of people indigenous to arctic areas. Maintaining good health through eating balanced and nutritious meals is essential in protecting yourself against SAD. Specifically, SAD is associated with increased carbohydrate cravings, so being mindful of simple carbohydrate intake and limiting intake of refined sugar could help curb irritability. Anti-inflammatory foods are increasingly recognized as powerful dietary choices to support good mental health at any time of the year.
12. Use alcohol moderately.
Excessive alcohol usage has also been linked to seasonal affective disorder. Although many people find themselves drinking alcohol a bit more during the holidays, alcohol is known to be a depressant and can affect your mood, behaviors, and sleep cycles, particularly if used regularly or excessively.
13. Plan a vacation.
If the wintertime is historically difficult for your mood, plan ahead to jet set to a warm-weather destination. Exposure to the brightness and warm weather can help to lift your mood and can be an exciting change to your routine. Alternatively, plan a fun vacation to a ski resort so you can enjoy snow-based activities and start to change your views on the wintertime!
While the above-mentioned tips are highly effective for most people, if you find yourself still struggling with your mood, it may be time to be evaluated by a physician. And please note that while the above information is helpful to know, it should not be taken for medical advice. Please see your own personal physician for medical advice if you're experiencing seasonal depression!