Early sunsets, colder temperatures, snow, and gray skies. The change in weather and the slump after the holidays can make some of us feel the winter blues. seasonal affective disorder
The winter blues is a general term for feeling down throughout the winter months, typically December through February. Some of us feel this decline, especially after the holidays when all the excitement is gone.
It’s a very common feeling, especially for those of us in the northern part of the US. The winter blues is characterized by a mood shift – feeling down and more tired than usual. This lack of energy can disrupt sleep patterns and make us feel less motivated than we typically are. Although winter blues can make us feel not ourselves, these feelings typically don’t interfere with our ability to enjoy life and are not a true diagnosis (more on that later!). Symptoms usually will clear up within a short period of time.
Overall, scientists believe that the winter blues is caused by exposure to a lower level of natural sunlight. As the skies turn gray and the clocks fall back, we experience less natural sunlight in our days. This causes a dip in serotonin and Vitamin D. These are important for regulating mood and feeling energized throughout the day.
The lack of natural sunlight also contributes to disruptions in circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is basically a 24-hour internal clock that guides our body into sleepiness and wakefulness. When it’s dark, our eyes send a signal to the hypothalamus (the part of the brain responsible for our circadian rhythm) that it’s time for bed, and then melatonin is released. Melatonin is a natural chemical that makes our bodies tired. So, it makes sense we feel so much more tired during our winter blues! The early sunsets can wreak havoc on our natural melatonin production and our circadian rhythm.
What to Do
The first step in addressing anything is to recognize it. Once you recognize that you may be struggling with the winter blues, it’s easier to find a fix.
Sunlight/light therapy – Up to 70% of individuals who experience the winter blues respond well to light therapy. Light boxes mimic natural, outdoor light and cause a biochemical change in the brain that relieves the symptoms listed above.
Exercise – Wanting to work out when it’s so cold can be a hurdle! But it is a first-class defense against the winter blues. Exercise releases endorphins like serotonin and dopamine that make us feel happier. Working out can also help us feel better about ourselves physically, which can boost mood and give us a positive outlook.
CBT – We’ve shared how CBT works in another blog post, but did you know CBT is the most effective treatment for winter blues that feel unmanageable? Changing negative thought patterns and replacing them with healthy strategies are top-of-the-line treatments for fighting the winter blues!
Create a Healthy Lifestyle
Sleep routine – Since winter blues are heavily affected by our sleep, it’s no wonder that creating a sleep routine will be beneficial. Making sure we are waking up and going to bed at roughly the same times everyday is a great place to start. Getting prepared for the next day and then relaxing before bed is a wonderful way to make bedtime less stressful.
Eating patterns – Once again, establishing a routine is beneficial. Eating a balanced, whole-foods diet is key to physical and mental wellbeing. The winter blues often cause us to crave carbs, and this can be detrimental to your mood and energy. Instead, focus on creating a diet with balanced macros (lean protein, healthy fat, healthy carbs) with high quality products that are low in added sugars and chemicals. Foods like fruits and dark chocolate can help curb your sweet tooth!
Happy music and movies – Spending time listening to your favorite songs or watching your favorite movies can help boost your mood. Find some songs and films that make you feel happy, calm, or relaxed, and incorporate them into your weekly or daily routines.
Plan – Finding motivation is a key struggle during the winter blues, and planning something fun can help keep you accountable, social, and engaged. Find something new that you want to try. Engage in old hobbies, or create new ones! Setting goals for what you want to accomplish each day or week can help keep you on track and minimize the occurrence of isolating and demotivating behaviors.
Acceptance – Probably the toughest on the list! Accepting that the weather is what it is, and finding ways to embrace winter activities will change your mindset. Turning a negative into a positive is crucial for creating a healthy outlook, and for dealing with the winter blues!
Any of the following symptoms that persist longer-term may be indicative of a diagnosis called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If your symptoms start in the fall and last through the winter, you feel down most days, or you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see a professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. The suicide hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
- Mood shift
- Feeling down
- Feeling fatigued/sleep too much
- Eat too much
- Feeling hopeless
- Losing interest
- Having suicidal thoughts
- Interferes with ability to enjoy life