How to fight winter blues?

Contents

8 ways to cope with the winter blues

Do the chilly, gloomy days of winter make you want to curl up under the covers and stay there until the sun shines again? You’re not alone. During our dark and rainy Pacific Northwest winters, we get less of the mood-boosting help of sunlight, which may set the stage for the winter blues. What can you do to beat the blues when the short, dark days are getting you down?

Overcoming the winter blues

Here are 8 ideas to get past the winter blues recommended by Kaiser Permanente physician Amado Daylo, MD (Assistant Medical Director of Behavioral Health Services).

1. Exercise

Bundle up for a walk, swim indoors, or head to the gym. Exercise can work as well as antidepressants (drugs to control a person’s mood) in fighting mild-to-moderate depression.

2. Check your vitamin D levels

Sunlight is a source of vitamin D, a nutrient linked to sharper thinking and better emotional health. Check with your doctor about whether a vitamin D supplement is right for you.

3. Get some light therapy

Give yourself every opportunity for daylight, such as placing exercise equipment or your work area near a window. Lamps that simulate natural light can also help.

4. Eat a healthy diet

Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains can boost your energy and are vital year round. Fruits and veggies of deep green or orange, like broccoli, kale, and carrots, have nutrients that promote better mood and total health.

5. Stimulate your senses

Some people find that painting their walls a bright color — or even their nails — can improve their outlook. Scents can add to your feeling of well-being; try peppermint essential oil or some other energizing scent.

6. Nurture your spirit

Slow down and curl up in a cozy chair with a good book or write in your journal.

7. Head to a sunnier climate

If time and budget allow, plan a midwinter visit to a warmer, sunnier climate.

8. See a therapist

A therapist can help you train your brain to think more positively, which can also make you feel better physically.

Feeling extra depressed during winter?

If you feel more than just a little down each winter, with symptoms such as missing work or struggling with even simple day-to-day tasks, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or winter depression. For some people, the lack of sunlight upsets the body’s ability to keep its complex chemistry and biological rhythms in sync; the body doesn’t know when to be active and when to rest anymore. If you’re trying to help yourself feel better but it isn’t working, you might want to see your doctor who could recommend other treatments.

Now that the Christmas tree is composting and radio stations have shelved that cheery holiday music until next winter, let’s get real with some rewriting: ‘Tis the season to be melancholy.

You know the feeling: You’re more tired these days, maybe anxious or moody. Cocooning with some leftover Christmas cookies or other sweet and high-carb fare sounds better than hanging with the crowd. Your sexual appetite may be on a diet, or even fasting. It’s harder to get out of bed, and when you do, your mood resembles the landscape you see — cold, dark, and nasty.

That’s the problem: The gloom caused by Mother Nature each winter in much of the country is biologically felt to some degree by an estimated one in four of us — usually starting around October and then magically ending by April with spring’s thaw. For most people, it manifests as winter doldrums, the “I-can’t-wait-for-winter-to-end” feeling that produce mild but manageable sluggishness and food cravings. But about 11 million Americans have a more severe form of winter depression — seasonal affective disorder, the aptly acronymed SAD that is typically diagnosed after at least two consecutive years of more intense symptoms.

“While a person with winter doldrums may have difficulty waking up or getting out of bed at times, someone with seasonal affective disorder can’t get to work on time,” says Michael Terman, PhD, director of the Winter Depression Program at New York Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Medical Center. “With the doldrums, it’s in the norm to gain up to 5 or 6 pounds over the winter, but with full-blown SAD, weight gain can be far more than that.”

Either way, it stems from the same cause: Sensitivity to the lack of sunlight that results from winter’s “shorter” days and disrupts our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. The degree of this sensitivity, and resulting winter depression severity, largely stems from some combination of other factors — your geography, genetics, and individual brain chemistry.

With SAD, the lack of sunlight causes the brain to work overtime producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns and a hormone that has been linked to depression. That’s why all things considered, the farther north from the equator you live, the greater the risk you’ll have some degree of winter depression. Only about 1% of Florida residents have some winter-specific discomfort or depression, compared to about half of those living in uppermost parts of the U.S. or in southern Canada.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Do you get depressed during the dark days of late fall and winter? You might have seasonal depression.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs at the same time each year, usually in winter. Otherwise known as seasonal depression, SAD can affect your mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels, taking a toll on all aspects of your life from your relationships and social life to work, school, and your sense of self-worth. You may feel like a completely different person to who you are in the summer: hopeless, sad, tense, or stressed, with no interest in friends or activities you normally love. While a less common form of the disorder causes depression during the summer months, SAD usually begins in fall or winter when the days become shorter and remains until the brighter days of spring or early summer.

SAD affects about 1% to 2% of the population, particularly women and young people, while a milder form of winter blues may affect as many 10 to 20 percent of people. Since the amount of winter daylight you receive changes the farther you are from the equator, SAD is most common in people who live at least 30 degrees latitude north or south (north of places such as Jacksonville, Florida, Austin, Texas, Cairo, Egypt, and Hangzhou, China, or south of Perth, Australia, Durban, South Africa, and Cordoba, Argentina). No matter where you live, though, or how dark and cold the winters, the good news is that, like other forms of depression, SAD is treatable.

Do I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

The reduced light, warmth, and color of winter leaves lots of people feeling a little more melancholy or tired—and isn’t necessarily something to worry about. But if your symptoms crop up around the same time each year, have a real impact on your quality of life, and improve when the seasons change, you may have seasonal affective disorder.

  1. I feel like sleeping all the time, or I’m having trouble sleeping
  2. I’m so tired it’s tough to carry out daily tasks
  3. My appetite has changed, particularly more cravings for sugary and starchy foods
  4. I’m gaining weight
  5. I feel sad, guilty and down on myself
  6. I feel hopeless
  7. I’m irritable
  8. I’m avoiding people or activities I used to enjoy
  9. I feel tense and stressed
  10. I’ve lost interest in sex and other physical contact

Signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

The signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are the same as those for major depression. SAD is distinguished from depression by the remission of symptoms in the spring and summer months (or winter and fall in the case of summer SAD).

Common symptoms include:

  • Depressed mood, low self-esteem
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Feeling angry, irritable, stressed, or anxious
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in sleeping pattern
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy; reduced sex drive
  • Use of drugs or alcohol for comfort
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair

As with depression, the severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person—often depending on genetic vulnerability and geographic location. For many, the symptoms usually begin mildly at the start of fall and get progressively worse through the darkest days of winter. Then, by spring or early summer, the symptoms lift until you’re in remission and feel normal and healthy again.

To be clinically diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, you need to have experienced these cyclical symptoms for two or more consecutive years. Regardless of the timing or persistence of your symptoms, if your depression feels overwhelming and is adversely affecting your life, it’s time to seek help.

If You Are Feeling Suicidal…

Whatever the season, when you’re feeling depressed your problems may not seem temporary—they can seem overwhelming and permanent. But you will feel better. If you are feeling suicidal, know that there are many people who want to support you during this difficult time, so please reach out for help.

Read Suicide Help, call 1-800-273-TALK in the U.S. or visit IASP or Suicide.org to find a helpline in your country.

Causes of seasonal affective disorder

While the exact causes of seasonal affective disorder are unclear, most theories attribute the disorder to the reduction of daylight hours in winter. The shorter days and reduced exposure to sunlight that occurs in winter are thought to affect the body by disrupting:

Circadian rhythms. Your body’s internal clock or sleep-wake cycle responds to changes between light and dark to regulate your sleep, mood, and appetite. The longer nights and shorter days of winter can disrupt your internal clock—leaving you feeling groggy, disoriented, and sleepy at inconvenient times.

Production of melatonin. When it’s dark, your brain produces the hormone melatonin to help you sleep and then sunlight during the day triggers the brain to stop melatonin production so you feel awake and alert. During the short days and long nights of winter, however, your body may produce too much melatonin, leaving you feeling drowsy and low on energy.

Production of serotonin. The reduced sunlight of winter can lower your body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. A deficit may lead to depression and adversely affect your sleep, appetite, memory, and sexual desire.

Summer of SAD

The less common form of SAD, summer depression, begins in late spring or early summer and ends in fall. Instead of being attributed to shorter days and reduced sunlight, experts believe that summer SAD is caused by the opposite—longer days and increased heat and humidity, possibly even an upswing in seasonal allergies.

Many summer SAD symptoms are the same as those for winter depression, although there are some differences. The longer daylight hours and shorter nights mean that if you have summer SAD, you’re more likely to sleep too little rather than too much. To promote sleep, your doctor may suggest taking melatonin supplements to make up for your body’s lower production. Changing your sleeping patterns by going to bed earlier at night (as soon as it gets dark in some cases) and rising earlier in the morning can also help to reset your body’s circadian rhythms.

As with any form of depression, there can be many different causes and contributing factors for seasonal affective disorder. Always consult your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and see the lifestyle changes outlined below for help to boost your mood and manage your depression symptoms.

Risk factors

Seasonal affective disorder can affect anyone but is most common in people who live far north or south of the equator. This means you’ll experience less sunlight in the winter months and longer days during the summer. Other risk factors include:

Your gender. While 3 out of 4 sufferers of SAD are women, men often experience more severe symptoms.

Your age. In most cases, winter SAD is first diagnosed in people aged 18 to 30 and is less likely to occur as you get older.

Your family history. Having relatives who’ve experienced SAD or another type of depression puts you at greater risk.

Seasonal bipolar disorder

The changes in seasons can trigger mood changes in some people with bipolar disorder. Spring and summer may trigger symptoms of mania or hypomania, while the onset of fall and winter can bring on symptoms of depression. While the depression symptoms of SAD and bipolar disorder can look alike, there are significant differences, especially when it comes to treatment. See Bipolar Disorder Signs and Symptoms.

Self-help for SAD tip 1: Get as much natural sunlight as possible – it’s free!

Seasonal depression can make it hard to motivate yourself to make changes, but there are plenty of steps you can take to help yourself feel better. Recovery takes time but you’ll likely feel a little better each day. By adopting healthy habits and scheduling fun and relaxation into your day, you can help lift the cloud of seasonal affective disorder and keep it from coming back.

Whenever possible, get outside during daylight hours and expose yourself to the sun without wearing sunglasses (but never stare directly at the sun). Sunlight, even in the small doses that winter allows, can help boost serotonin levels and improve your mood.

  • Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside if you can stay warm enough.
  • Increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.
  • Some people find that painting walls in lighter colors or using daylight simulation bulbs helps to combat winter SAD.

Tip 2: Exercise regularly—it can be as effective as medication

Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight seasonal depression, especially if you’re able to exercise outside in natural daylight. Regular exercise can boost serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals. In fact, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. Exercise can also help to improve your sleep and boost your self-esteem.

Find exercises that are continuous and rhythmic. The most benefits for depression come from rhythmic exercise-such as walking, weight training, swimming, martial arts, or dancing-where you move both your arms and legs.

Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days. Even something as simple as walking a dog, for example, can be good exercise for you and the animal, as well as a great way to get outdoors and interact with other people.

Tip 3: Reach out to family and friends—and let them help

Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage SAD. Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. It may feel more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will boost your mood. Even if you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect or start new relationships.

Call or email an old friend to meet for coffee. Or reach out to someone new—a work colleague or neighbor, for example. Most of us feel awkward about reaching out, but be the one to break the ice.

Join a support group for depression. Sometimes, just talking about what you’re going through can help you feel better. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce your sense of isolation and provide inspiration to make positive changes.

Meet new people with a common interest by taking a class, joining a club, or enrolling in a special interest group that meets on a regular basis. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that’s fun for you.

Volunteer your time. Helping others is one of the best ways to feel better about yourself, expand your social network, and overcome SAD.

Tip 4: Eat the right diet

Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings.

  • While the symptoms of SAD can make you crave sugary foods and simple carbohydrates, such as pasta and white bread, complex carbohydrates are a better choice. Foods such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas can boost your feel-good serotonin levels without the subsequent sugar crash.
  • Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats—such as oily fish, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—can also improve your mood and may even boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.

Tip 5: Take steps to deal with stress

Whatever the time of year, too much stress can exacerbate or even trigger depression.

Figure out the things in your life that stress you out, such as work overload or unsupportive relationships, and make a plan to avoid them or minimize their impact.

Practicing daily relaxation techniques can help you manage stress, reduce negative emotions such as anger and fear, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.

Do something you enjoy (or used to) every day. While you can’t force yourself to have fun or experience pleasure, you can push yourself to do things, even when you don’t feel like it. You might be surprised at how much better you feel once you’re out and about. Having fun is a great stress buster, so make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be painting, playing the piano, working on your car, or simply hanging out with friends.

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder: Light therapy

The mainstay of winter SAD treatment is light therapy, otherwise known as phototherapy. Light therapy aims to replace the missing daylight of winter by exposing you to bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Daily exposure can suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin to help you feel more awake and alert, less drowsy and melancholy.

Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 percent of SAD cases. However, the timing and length of exposure needed can vary according to your symptoms and circadian rhythm, so you’ll need guidance from your doctor or mental health professional to find the right dosage. Your doctor or therapist can also help you choose a light therapy product that’s both effective and safe. (While tanning beds generate sufficient light, they should never be used to treat SAD as the UV rays they produce can be harmful to the skin and eyes.)

Light therapy has to be continued daily throughout the winter months to be effective. Starting light therapy before the onset of symptoms in the fall may even help prevent seasonal affective disorder.

Two different ways of administering light therapy

1. A light box delivers light that with up to ten times the intensity of normal domestic lighting. In most cases, you simply sit about 12 inches in front of a 10,000-lux light box for 15 to 30 minutes each morning. The light box emits a controlled amount of white light, with harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays filtered out. While the light needs to enter the eyes, you shouldn’t stare directly at the light box, but rather continue your morning routine, such as eating breakfast, reading the newspaper or working at the computer. Most people notice an improvement in their SAD symptoms after a few days and experience the full antidepressant effect in about two weeks.

You can buy a light box without a prescription, although you may want to work with a professional to monitor the benefits of the treatment. While light therapy carries few side effects, consult your doctor about any eye or skin problems before using a light box. Also, beware that light therapy may trigger a manic episode if you have bipolar disorder.

2. A dawn simulator is a device that gradually increases the amount of light in your bedroom in the morning to simulate the rising sun and wake you up. The light gradually increases, just as natural sunlight does, over a period of 30 to 45 minutes. Instead of waking in darkness, you wake to what looks like a sunny morning. This can help reset your circadian rhythm and improve your mood. While light boxes may trigger hypomania or mania in those with bipolar disorder, there is no such risk with a dawn simulator.

Medication and psychotherapy for seasonal affective disorder

While light therapy is often a highly effective treatment for SAD or the winter blues, it doesn’t work for everyone. If that’s the case, don’t despair, there are other effective treatment options available and plenty of self-help techniques to help you feel better.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be highly beneficial for people with seasonal depression. The right therapist can help you curb negative thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that make the disorder worse and help you learn how to manage symptoms and deal with stress in healthy ways. For many people, CBT can be as effective at treating seasonal affective disorder as light therapy or antidepressants, but without any risky side-effects.

Medication. If light therapy doesn’t work for you, your doctor may suggest antidepressant medication. SSRI antidepressants work by acting on serotonin levels in the brain to reduce SAD symptoms. In the U.S., the FDA has specifically approved the drug bupropion (Wellbutrin) to treat seasonal affective disorder. However, as with all antidepressants, there may be adverse side effects, including a number of safety concerns specific to children and young adults. It’s important to weigh the benefits against the risks before starting on medication.

Whatever treatment plan you settle on, it’s important to combine it with self-help techniques to help manage your depression symptoms and even help prevent seasonal affective disorder returning next year.

10 Ways to Fight Off the Winter Blues

People with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or the clinical version of the winter blues, aren’t the only ones who struggle with the shorter days, colder weather, and the general blah of the winter season. Less sunlight can affect the circadian rhythm, the body’s biological clock that governs certain brain wave activity and hormone production. If you’re human, chances are you’ve woken up on a gray, wintry day and wanted to stay in bed. For older people, and for folks with a condition like Raynaud’s phenomenon who are sensitive to the cold, it’s even tougher. I am not a huge winter fan, so I have to work extra hard on my mental health during the colder months.

Here are a few techniques I keep in mind.

1. Behave Like You’re From Minnesota

I learned an important lesson the year I lived in Minneapolis during the blizzard of 1996, when snow hit the ground in October and didn’t leave until the end of May: These people adapt! They love it. They make a trip to L.L. Bean in the fall, get all the necessary gear, and go ice-fishing, ice-skating, snowshoeing, and do everything in their power to appreciate the very elements that I cursed. By February, I couldn’t take being inside anymore, so I followed suit. I started running in the snow, having fun with the icicles that would form inside our car, and throwing up a pail of water and watching it come down as snow from our apartment balcony. Once I tried to act like a Minnesotan and stopped resisting the cold temperature, the better I tolerated it.

2. Wear Bright Colors

I have no research supporting this theory, but I’m quite convinced there is a link between feeling optimistic and sporting bright colors. It’s in line with the “faking it ’til you make it” desperate attempts to trick your brain into thinking that it’s sunny and beautiful outside — time to celebrate spring! — even though there’s a blizzard with sleet causing some major traffic jams. Personally, I tend to wear black every day in the winter. It’s supposed to make you look thinner. But the result is that I appear as if — and feel like — I’m going to a funeral every afternoon between the months of November and March. So I make a conscious effort to wear bright green, purple, blue, and pink, and sometimes — if I’m in a rush — all of them together.

3. Stock Up on Vitamin D

Since we get most of our vitamin D from the sun, it’s a good idea to take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months. So many diseases are correlated with low vitamin D levels, especially depression. The National Institutes of Health’s recommended dietary allowance for vitamin D is 600 international units (IUs) a day. But The New York Times best-selling author Joseph Mercola, DO, suggests that adults take as much as 5,000 IU per day. I take 3,000 IUs in a liquid, which absorbs better into my system. Certain foods are good sources of vitamin D, including cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, tuna, milk, yogurt, sardines, eggs, and cereals fortified with vitamin D.

4. Make a Book and Movie List

Winter is a great time to get to those books and movies you’ve been meaning to read and watch. A friend of mine challenged herself to read all the classics during the months she wasn’t positioned on the sidelines of her son’s lacrosse field. Since plenty of research has indicated that humor can relieve pain, I like to watch comedy. My sense of humor is at the eighth-grade level, so I still laugh when I see Airplane, Grown Ups, or Jack and Jill. Adam Sandler isn’t for everyone, but he tends to be pretty effective at distracting me from a depressive episode for two hours. During the winter, that can feel like an eternity.

5. Hang With Positive People

This is especially critical in the winter when you’re typically spending a lot of time inside with people chatting over a cup of coffee. If the negativity gets too thick, it can become suffocating. As I mentioned in my column 9 Ways to Promote Gratitude In Your Life, the people around you influence you more than you think. In one study conducted by Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School and James Fowler, PhD, of the University of California in San Diego, individuals who associated themselves with happy people were more likely to be happy themselves.

Another study by psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel, PhD, and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, showed that risk factors for depression can actually be contagious when our social environments are in flux. If you hang around people from Minnesota, you might find that you love winter.

6. Try Something New

For awhile now, we’ve known about neuroplasticity — that the brain changes and develops over the course of our lives. We are not stuck with the noggin we were born with. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers like neuroscientist Nathan Spreng, PhD, of Cornell University can actually map brain activity when we learn a new skill and have discovered that in the process of learning, our neurons become wired together. As our neurons send and receive information about the task at hand and become more efficient, it takes less effort for them to communicate to the next cell what is going on. Trying something new essentially rewires our brain. Take advantage of your days indoors to learn a new musical instrument (or maybe just a new piece of music), try your hand at a new card game, or maybe cook up something different for dinner.

7. Start a Project

There’s no time like winter to start a home project, like de-cluttering the house or purging all the old clothes in your kids’ closets. When a friend of mine was going through a tough time, she painted her entire house — and every room downstairs with two different colors. Not only did it help distract her from her problems, but it provided her with a sense of accomplishment that she desperately needed those months: something to feel good about as she saw other things crumble around her. Projects like organizing bookshelves, shredding old tax returns, and cleaning out the garage are perfect activities for the dreary months of the year.

8. Eat Winter Mood Foods

If you have a slow cooker, winter is a great time to experiment with tasty mood-boosting soups and stews. Some great fall and winter ingredients to include are squash (a great source of magnesium and potassium), eggplant (which contains fiber, copper, vitamin B1, and manganese), sweet potatoes (full of pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, biotin, and anti-inflammatory flavonoids), and turmeric (which assists with immune-inflammatory or stress pathways and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis activity).

9. Use a Sun Lamp

In November, I get out my mammoth Verilux HappyLight from the bedroom closet.

Bright-light therapy has proven to be an effective treatment for SAD because, as I mentioned earlier, less sunlight affects our circadian rhythms. Light boxes — flat screens that produce full-spectrum fluorescent light, usually at an intensity of 10,000 lux — are the typical light system used for SAD in clinical studies. Some health clubs offer light-box rooms where you can go sit in front of the boxes if you can’t afford to buy one for yourself. It’s important to position the light box according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and to use it at the same time each day, typically for 30 to 60 minutes. Most people get the best results when they use a light box before 10 a.m.

10. Sit By the Fire

It’s primal, that feeling you get when you stick your face into a hot glowing body of flames. There’s something so consoling about staring into the embers and warming your hands by their heat. But you need not go to the trouble of building a fire in your house: You can borrow someone else’s fire — even a coffee shop’s — or you can simply light a few candles and enjoy a primal moment to remind you that you belong to this world of human beings that have sat around fires for thousands of years to get warm and enjoy a moment of stillness.

Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Photo credit: Oliver Rossi/Corbis

More Than Just the Winter Blues?

Learn how to recognize and take control of SAD

With 5 p.m. sunsets, erratic temperatures and plenty of snow and ice, winters in Chicago and other northern cities are not for the faint of heart.

And winter is far worse for people with the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder (commonly known as SAD).

Is it the winter blues or SAD?

The winter blues are very common, with many of us experiencing a mood shift during the colder, darker days of winter. You may find yourself feeling more lethargic and down overall. Although you may feel more gloomy than usual, the winter blues typically don’t hinder your ability to enjoy life.

But if your winter blues start permeating all aspects of your life — from work to relationships — you may be facing SAD. SAD is a recurrent type of depression associated with the change in seasons. It typically starts in the fall and persists through the winter months.

SAD is more complicated than wanting to hunker down and stay in for the night. It’s more than simply cursing another blizzard. And it’s more than longing for those first days of spring. Basically, it’s much more than the winter blues.

“SAD can be debilitating for some people,” says Joyce Corsica, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rush. “And if you’re suffering from it, it’s important to get help.”

Sun power

The primary culprit of both the winter blues and SAD is the lower level of natural sunlight we are exposed to in the fall and winter. Less natural light can cause the following problems:

  • Dips in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood
  • Disruptions in circadian rhythms (your body’s internal clock), which help control sleep-wake cycles
  • Alterations in melatonin, a hormone associated with both mood and sleep

“All of these factors can have a direct impact on your mood,” says Corsica. “And if you’re having mood difficulties, other things can start to fall apart too. You may find less enjoyment in your life, your work performance may suffer and you may start struggling with your relationships. None of this happens in a vacuum.”

Here are four ways to get a leg up on the winter blues and SAD:

1. Recognize the signs

The most common symptoms of the winter blues are general sadness and a lack of energy. Other symptoms of the winter blues include the following:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling less social than usual
  • Difficulty taking initiative

The hallmarks of SAD are sleep too much and overeating. Other common SAD symptoms include the following:

  • Mood that is down or depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy
  • Withdrawing and isolating yourself from friends and family
  • Struggling to focus and perform at work or home
  • Feeling constantly fatigued and lethargic
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Having suicidal thoughts

Often people with the winter blues or SAD first because they aren’t feeling well — they’re lethargic, easily fatigued and aren’t feeling like themselves.”

If you’re experiencing depressive symptoms — even mild ones associated with the winter blues — it is important to talk to your primary care doctor or a psychologist to discuss your options.

Often people with the winter blues or SAD first go to their primary care doctor because they aren’t feeling well — they’re lethargic, easily fatigued and aren’t feeling like themselves. They think there is something wrong physically.

Diagnostic tests, such as a blood test to check your vitamin D levels or a complete blood count, can rule out other causes of these symptoms.

After that, your clinicians will ask you some questions to help determine if you’re facing the winter blues or SAD. According to Corsica, the most telling question is: Do your symptoms interfere with your function at home, work and/or relationships?

If they do, it’s time to take action.

3. Find a treatment that works for you

While symptoms of the winter blues and, to some extent, symptoms of SAD may dissipate in the spring, you shouldn’t suffer silently, says Corsica.

The good news about both the winter blues and SAD is there are a number of evidence-based treatments that can be quite effective in alleviating your symptoms. Discuss the following treatments with your clinician:

  • Sunlight: It’s important to get outside whenever the sun is out during these darker days. Take a walk during your lunch break, play with your kids in the snow or try an outdoor winter activity like snowshoeing, skiing or ice-skating. Exposing yourself to natural light will help boost serotonin production and your overall mood.
  • Light therapy: As the current standard of care for SAD, light therapy replicates natural light with light boxes, which use white fluorescent bulbs to mimic sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down. When undergoing light therapy, you will spend a prescribed amount of time looking at the light box each day. It is important to follow your clinician’s orders to ensure you are using an appropriate “dose.” This will help the treatment be most effective, while also lowering your risk for side effects (e.g., agitation and headaches).
  • Exercise: Research consistently shows a strong exercise-mental health connection, particularly for those with depression and anxiety. That’s why experts often refer to exercise as nature’s antidepressant. Exercise can increase serotonin and endorphins, which both affect mood. Moderate exercise of at least 30 minutes most days of the week may provide the biggest mood boost.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: A recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy can actually be a more effective long-term treatment for SAD than light therapy. While more research is needed in this area, cognitive-behavioral therapy is clinically proven to be extremely beneficial for all types of depression.
  • Medication: If more conservative treatments are not providing adequate relief, you may need antidepressants to regulate the chemical imbalances associated with the winter blues and SAD. While you may be able to taper off the medication as you head into spring, it is important to talk to your prescribing doctor before making any changes to your medication or dosage.

4. Embrace a healthy lifestyle

Maintaining a regular schedule during the winter months can help keep your hormones in balance and regulate your mood — whether you suffer with the winter blues or SAD. Follow these tips to help manage your winter mood:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to help normalize your circadian rhythms.
  • Structure your eating patterns by eating three meals a day, around the same time every day.
  • Avoid the common urge in the winter to overindulge in simple carbohydrates, such as starchy or sweet foods; eat a balanced diet of proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains (e.g., brown rice, quinoa).
  • Make (and keep) plans with friends and families to help you stay connected to your loved ones.
  • Take time for yourself and engage in activities you enjoy.

SAD fast facts

  • Women and young adults ages 18 to 30 are more likely to suffer with SAD than men and older adults, respectively.
  • On average, about 6 percent Americans (most commonly in Northern climates) experience SAD, while about 14 percent of Americans experience the winter blues.
  • Rates of SAD vary depending on where you live. About 9 percent of Americans who live near the Canadian border experience SAD symptoms, compared to just 1.5 percent of people in Florida

8 Tips to Beat the Winter Blues

As the days get shorter and the long, dark nights of winter settle in, a lot of people find their mood gets darker, too.

Especially after all the fun and festivities of the holidays are over, many people feel tired, irritable, or a bit down. These feelings are so common that there’s even a name for them: the “winter blues.”

Most people only experience a mild version of the winter blues, and can continue living life as normal without too much effort. Others, however, have a more severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Both are probably caused by sensitivity to the lack of sunlight from the shorter winter days, which disrupts your body clock and messes with hormone levels. This in turn affects your mood and makes you want to sleep more (even if it’s hard to fall asleep at night).

If like most people you don’t have the luxury of just going back to bed until it gets warmer outside, there are some simple things you can do to lift your mood.

However, if things don’t feel like they’re getting better, or you’ve noticed a pattern where you get depressed during certain seasons, talk to someone you trust about what you’re feeling. Go see your health care provider. They can help figure out a plan of action to get you back to feeling your best. If you’re 10-22 years old and live in the NYC area, you can come to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for confidential health care and mental health services, for free.

1. Lighten up.

Your body and your brain are craving more daylight, which makes your body release the feel-good hormone serotonin. Walk outside during the day, even when it’s cold, to get some sun exposure. Sitting closer to windows during the day can also help you get an extra dose of sunshine. Doctors usually recommend that people with SAD use a light box (a special light that simulates daylight) for 30 minutes per day. Using a light box may boost your mood even if you haven’t been diagnosed with SAD, but keep in mind they can be pretty pricey, and need to be used in a specific way. Everybody, however, can get out during the daytime, even for just a few minutes. You may feel your worst in the morning, but make an effort to open up the curtains and soak in the morning rays. Remember: hibernation is for bears, not you!

2. Eat to improve your mood.

Certain foods such as chocolate have been shown to improve moods and help relieve anxiety. Candy and carbohydrates, like cookies or white bread, on the other hand, feel good when you’re eating them, but make you feel worse later when your blood sugar crashes. Little comforts that don’t lay on the carbs, like a cup of tea or small piece of dark chocolate, can help you relax without sabotaging yourself later. It’s also important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which can leave you feeling more optimistic in the long run. Make a pot of vegetable soup or chili to get the cozy feel of a cup of hot chocolate without the sugar crash.

3. Get moving.

More and more research suggests that exercise is a great way to help deal with (and maybe even prevent) depression. Exercise as simple as walking for 30 (or even 10!) minutes can have a significant impact on your mood. Bundle up and go for a walk, play basketball with friends indoors at a community center or gym, or dance around your living room. Staying active helps stop winter weight gain, too.

4. Listen to an upbeat playlist.

Research in 2013 from the University of Missouri suggested that listening to cheerful music can improve your mood, even after the song ends. So put away the ballads for the winter, and listen to something with a good beat that you can dance to!

5. Help others.

Volunteering your time to help someone else can improve mental health and how satisfied you feel with your life. Help out a local organization. Clean out your closet and donate the clothes you’ve grown out of. Put in some extra effort around the house to help out your family. Do something kind for a friend. The possibilities are endless!

6. Stay social.

You may feel inclined to spend more time alone. However, spending time with friends and loved ones can have a serious impact on your mood. If you begin flaking on your friends more during the fall and winter, ask someone to help you keep those commitments.

7. Relax.

Being mindful, doing deep breathing exercises, and meditating can all have a significant impact on how you feel. Try taking several deep, slow breaths, filling your belly as you inhale and letting it deflate as you exhale. Concentrate on nothing but your breathing.

8. Be kind to yourself.

We’ve given you a lot of tips on how to deal with feeling down. But when you’re depressed, it can be really hard to find the motivation to actually do these things. If you skip a workout or stay in all day, don’t get mad at yourself. Instead, think about what you’d say to a good friend going through something similar.

These small changes can lighten your mood and help you get through the winter blues.

A version of this post was originally published in December 2016.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

If you’ve been feeling down, irritable, or low on energy or if you’ve been craving sweet or starchy foods or sleeping more or less than usual, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s common in the winter months.

If you are, you’re not alone. As the hours of daylight decrease and the temperature outside gets chilly during the winter, many people experience symptoms like these. The duration and severity can vary significantly from one person to another—but the good news is that you don’t have to suffer until spring. You can take steps now to ease these symptoms.

Expose yourself to light. Since a shortage of sun exposure is part of what triggers SAD, sit by a bright window or go out for a walk during the day. If this doesn’t give you enough of a mood boost, consider investing in a light box, which can also help with insomnia, or a dawn simulator: The artificial light from these devices is about 20 times brighter than what’s emitted by ordinary light bulbs and of a different wavelength (10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light). The theory is that if you sit in front of a light box for at least 30 minutes each day (ideally first thing in the morning), the light will suppress the release of melatonin (which makes you sleepy) and trigger the release of brain chemicals that are linked to a more upbeat mood.

Stick with a healthy diet. Rather than indulging in lots of creamy, cheesy, starchy, or sugary comfort foods, make or order satisfying, produce-based items. Choose vegetable soups and stews, baked or roasted apples and pears, and you’ll get the hearty and filling sensations that you want without consuming excessive calories.

Stay active. Don’t hibernate or stay cooped up inside. Bundle up and enjoy winter activities like ice skating, snowshoeing, building a snowman with your kids, or going for a walk in the snow. Get together with friends and see movies or go to museums. Engage in fun activities with your kids at home like playing board games or doing arts and crafts while drinking warm cider.

Seek professional help. If you can’t beat feelings of seasonal depression, see a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, which can improve SAD and may have longer-lasting benefits than light therapy. And ask your general practitioner whether you’re a good candidate for antidepressants (such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) that can provide a mood-boosting effect. Keep in mind that it can take several weeks to feel a noticeable difference with these drugs.

Others may be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is a type of depression that may require lifestyle changes or professional support to overcome.

Below are some tips that any of us can use to raise our spirits during the winter months.

Keep Active:
On cold, dark days, it can be hard to pull yourself out of bed. But it’s important to keep moving and active. Keeping up with work, school or social obligations gives you momentum and focus that can make it easier to weather the tough days. Exercise has also been proven to reduce symptoms of depression and make you feel better. So hit the gym or set aside some time for exercise or yoga at home.

Lighten Up:
Winter has its share of dark, gloomy mornings, but turning on your lamps and overhead lights can help lift your mood. Some people in particularly dark climates even invest in a light box or special lamps that mimic natural outdoor light.

Focus on the Positive:
It’s so easy to focus on the negative, but taking stock of the positive can greatly improve our perspective and mood. Take time each morning or night to write down a list of positives or things you are grateful for. If you’re comfortable, you can post your gratitude list on Facebook or tweet out one of your “positives” to inspire your friends and family.

Talk About It:
One of the best ways to feel better is to open up and talk about how you’re doing. If you’re feeling blue or having a hard time getting motivated, talk to a friend about it. Most likely, they have felt or are feeling similar and you can help each other along by trading stories and tips. If your sadness or lethargy is continuing over days or weeks, or making it hard for you to function, consider reaching out to a counselor or other professional who can help.

Treat Yourself:
In some locations, the weather keeps you homebound for a good part of the season. Just because you aren’t going out as much, doesn’t mean you can’t plan activities and have fun. Plan a movie night for yourself or a group of friends. Indulge in a hobby or start a project. Instead of feeling “trapped” inside, make a list of things you enjoy and find ways to engage in those activities.

Below are some signs and symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you think you or someone you know is dealing with SAD, it’s important to speak up or reach out to a mental health professional who can help create a plan for overcoming the depression.

Signs & Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

• Depression
• Anxiety
• Irritability
• Loss of energy
• Changes in appetite or sleep
• Weight gain or loss
• Hopelessness
• Trouble concentrating

Click here for more information on SAD from NAMI.

Fight Off Seasonal Depression With These 7 Affordable Essentials

Share on PinterestDesign by Pichamon Chamroenrak

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

One of my earliest memories from childhood is of a feeling of deep sadness even as I looked out at the twinkling Christmas lights my parents had hung around my window. I can still picture the blurred Christmas lights shimmering through my tears.

When other kids were excited for Santa and presents, I could never understand why I was so sad every December.

Now in my adulthood, I have an official diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and all of those tearful nights make a lot of sense to me. SAD, a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, typically rears its ugly head in autumn when there’s less light and ends around March or April.

Since exposure to sunlight plays a role, it’s been found that you’re more prone to the disorder the farther north you live, where winter days are shorter. Symptoms include fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty concentrating, among others.

After experiencing seasonal depression for 35 winters of my life, I’ve created what I call a “comfort kit” of tools that get me through to spring.

My comfort kit is a mix of products, techniques, and activities that make me feel better. Many of these essentials are inexpensive or even free.

If you try these ideas or develop your own comfort kit and your SAD symptoms just won’t budge, it might be a good time to consider therapy.

Here are my seven must-haves that help me fight my seasonal depression symptoms.

1. 10-minute daily nature sessions

Forest bathing is a form of eco-therapy that means mindfully spending time in nature. I make it part of my wellness routine year-round, and winter is no exception.

Studies have shown even short walks in nature increase mood, among other benefits for the body and mind. I’ve made it a goal to get outside every day, even if it’s below freezing or there are flurries in the forecast.

If I’m not able to make it to an idyllic pine forest, even a quick walk around my neighborhood or to the nearest park allows me to soak up the mental health benefits of nature.

2. Cold-weather accessories that keep me cozy

There are few things that will put me in a bad mood more quickly than feeling cold. Since I won’t be seeing an 80-degree day for several months, I know that to feel comfortable, I have to pile on the layers.

When I’m dressed for the elements, I’m more likely to go for my daily nature walks and stay social. So, I finally sprung for a pair of Smartwool gloves. At $25 they’re more expensive than other gloves. Although, I’m not sure if I can put a price tag on having warm hands all winter long.

Feeling good indoors is important too. I have a huge collection of blankets, fuzzy socks in every color, and snuggly necessities like a lavender-filled owl that I warm up in the microwave. All these cold-weather comforts help me focus on the charm of winter, instead of the cold weather and short days it brings.

Shop for hooty owl therapy plush.

Shop for electric blankets.

Shop for Smartwool cozy gloves.

3. Scented Epsom salts

If you’re going through SAD, you’re likely feeling lousy. To generate some uplifting vibes and soothe my body, I’ll sit in an Epsom salt bath, preferably one that has a citrus scent to improve my mood. You can buy a large bag of Epsom salts for the cost of a couple lattes, and it lasts forever.

You can upgrade your me time with your favorite self-care essentials: an aromatherapy candle, journal, or your favorite playlist. Just remember to set your phone aside during your soak.

Shop for Epsom salts.

Shop for aromatherapy candles.

4. Light boxes

The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends daily 30-minute exposure to a light therapy box. I have several light boxes around my home, ranging from the big box on my desk that I received through my insurance to several small boxes that I can read next to.

For the last few winters, I’ve used my trusty Verilux HappyLight Compact, which I’ve placed anywhere from my bathroom counter to the table next to my couch.

Shop for light therapy boxes.

5. Caring for plants

When my SAD kicks in, I know that my loved ones are going to rally around me to help keep the house clean, cook meals, and complete other everyday tasks.

When I’m at my lowest, it can make me feel better to take care of something small, like a houseplant. Studies have shown that gardening can help reduce feelings of depression. It’s a simple thing, but I really do believe watering my little succulents can help lift the clouds of my gray mood.

Shop for succulents.

6. Filling up my social calendar

If I’m in the deep, dark throes of seasonal depression, truthfully the last thing I want to do is get dressed, go out, and interact with people. I enjoy being around others, but since withdrawing from social events is a sign of SAD, I accept that it’s just one of the symptoms I deal with.

There are times I respect my limits and stay in — and let’s be honest, it often involves a container of cookie dough and Hulu — but other times, I nudge myself to get out there and do things.

I find that putting events on my calendar that I’m really looking forward to — things like gingerbread-making parties or indoor holiday markets — forces me to leave the house. Many of these events are free or pretty close to it.

Shop for wall calendars.

7. Meditation and an annual winter mantra

Meditation is an incredibly powerful practice for the mind, proven through numerous scientific studies to boost emotional health. This past summer, I made it a goal to sit down and meditate every single day, which I’ve done successfully using a free app called Insight Timer.

With meditations geared toward depression and visualizations of sunlight and tropical beaches, this is shaping up to be an important tool in my SAD arsenal.

In the spirit of mindfulness, I also develop a new mantra each year to get me through winter, something that grounds me and brings me back to the present moment instead of wishing for summer.

This winter, you might even find me stringing some holiday lights. And with my “comfort kit” essentials in tow, I won’t be looking at them through tear-soaked eyes.

Shelby Deering is a lifestyle writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, with a master’s degree in journalism. She specializes in writing about wellness and for the past 13 years she’s contributed to national outlets including Prevention, Runner’s World, Well+Good, and more. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her meditating, searching for new organic beauty products, or exploring local trails with her husband and corgi, Ginger.

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