What to Do When Winter Depression Gets the Best of You
Winter depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of depression with onset in the fall or winter. Approximately ten million Americans struggle with winter depression due to the shorter days, colder temperatures, social isolation, and other factors related to the season. For some people, professional help is necessary. Anyone, either with a diagnosed condition or not, can benefit from exercise, time outdoors, social support, and a healthy diet.
Do you get the blues in winter? Dread the day the clocks change back, and the sun starts setting early? Do you count the days to spring?
If this sounds like you, it could be seasonal depression. Some people feel blue in winter, but others have depression. If you’re struggling, take steps to learn more about seasonal depression and what you can do about it.
Is Winter Depression Real?
Many people feel more depressed than usual in the winter. It is not unusual. While some people just feel a little more blue or lethargic, others have a diagnosable condition: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
SAD is a type of depression that changes in response to the season. The vast majority of people with SAD feel worse beginning in the fall and throughout winner. A minority experience SAD in spring and summer.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real, and it can significantly impact your life every year. It can make you moody and depressed. It can cause you to lose interest in activities you normally enjoy. SAD can also make you sluggish and fatigued. You may struggle to get things done throughout winter with SAD.
Understanding How Winter Impacts Mood
If you’re affected by SAD, you know how terrible it feels. The first step in overcoming it is to understand what’s happening. Biological and environmental factors trigger this type of depression. It’s not your fault or a personal weakness.
- Reduced sunlight. Even people without a diagnosed condition tend to feel a little down as the days get shorter in fall. A reduction in sunlight may interfere with circadian rhythms, the body’s clock. This shift may trigger depression.
- Neurotransmitters. The environmental changes that occur in fall and winter affect neurotransmitter levels in the brain. Serotonin levels may drop in response to lower sunlight. This can cause depression. Melatonin may also become unbalanced, disrupting sleep and mood.
- Genetics. As with other kinds of depression, family history is a risk factor for SAD. You may have genes that predispose you to struggle with winter conditions.
How to Cope with Winter Depression
Anyone who feels down to any degree in the winter can benefit from coping strategies. If you try these and still get no relief, see your doctor or mental health professional. They can diagnose SAD and help you get professional care for it.
1. Get Outside As Much as Possible
People tend to stay indoors much more in the winter for obvious reasons. If you live in a cold climate with short days, you may resist the urge to get out there. It’s easier and more comfortable to stay warm inside.
Push yourself past that urge and spend more time outside in the winter. You won’t regret it. Any amount of exposure to sunlight during the day can counteract the effects of seasonal depression. It can help rebalance neurotransmitters and circadian rhythms. Morning daylight is particularly useful for the latter and can help you sleep better at night.
When you do have to be inside, try to make your home and office brighter. Keep blinds and drapes open and sit near windows. If trees block a lot of the light, consider trimming them back a little.
2. Exercise Daily
Exercise is a natural mood booster any time of year. It increases endorphins, the neurotransmitters that make you feel good. Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety, two mental health symptoms that only make depression worse.
If you’re feeling fatigued due to depression, it can be a real challenge to get started. But once you do, you should experience an increase in energy and motivation.
For bonus points, get exercise outdoors most days. An ideal way to reap the benefits of both is to take a brisk walk in the morning. If you have a natural area, like a park or forest, nearby, even better. Time spent in nature is proven to boost mood, improve mental health symptoms, and reduce stress and anxiety.
3. Get Tested for Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is an important nutrient. Your body makes vitamin D when your skin absorbs sunlight. It’s not unusual to become deficient during the winter. If you wear sunscreen during warmer months, you could be deficient year-round.
Studies have found a link between depression and low vitamin D. Researchers don’t fully understand the reasons, but being deficient in D could impact your mood. Your doctor can test your vitamin D levels and recommend a supplemental dosage.
4. Maintain a Healthy Diet
Depression causes some people to eat less and lose weight. In others, it triggers binges on comforting junk food. Resist the urge to eat sugary snacks for comfort and turn to healthy foods instead. Focus on a balanced diet of primarily whole foods, including lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, whole grains,nuts, and seeds.
Pay particular attention to omega-3 fatty acids. Research is mixed but shows some evidence that supplementing with or eating a diet rich in these fats can combat depression. Good sources include fatty fish, like mackerel and salmon, seaweed and algae, chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts.
5. Get Social
Depression is very isolating. Both the weather and your mood in the winter conspire to make you want to lock down, stay indoors, and be alone. The importance of socializing cannot be overstated. Social support is essential for all aspects of mental health. You can reach out to and benefit from others in several ways:
- Call a friend or family member just to talk. Commit to reaching out at least once per day.
- Find a friend to walk with for fresh air, exercise, and socialize all at once.
- Do volunteer work to keep you busy and get out of the house and around other people.
- Join a support group for depression or SAD. It can be in person or online.
- Respond yes to social invitations, even if you’re not in the mood. You’ll feel better for going.
6. Take a Break, if You Can
If time and finances allow, give yourself a break. Take a vacation somewhere warmer and sunnier to get relief from the dreariness of a northern winter. Exposure to sunlight and warmer temperatures, coupled with a chance to relax and unwind, can be a powerful way to boost your mood even after you arrive back home.
7. Set Small Goals and Take Baby Steps
Just getting out of bed in the morning can be a monumental challenge when you feel depressed. These tips are helpful for depression unless you can’t bring yourself to do them. Any change is positive, so set small goals you feel you can manage. Each small step is a win to be celebrated and will eventually help you feel more accomplished and capable.
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Know When to Get Professional Support
Learning more about SAD and how to cope with it is the first step in feeling better. This may not be something you can fix with your own efforts, though. Professional care for SAD may include cognitive behavioral therapy and medications, but also light therapy.
A doctor can prescribe you a special device that provides light for a certain amount of time per day. You can find lightboxes online, but it’s best to try this therapy under medical supervision.
You may also benefit at this time of year from more intensive care. Consider getting out of your rut and trying residential treatment for depression. This is an opportune time to try something new if you have been struggling with depression for some time.
Residential facilities provide long-term care, a wide range of care plans, specialists, a built-in support group, and tools for coping with depression that you can use for the rest of your life. You don’t have to keep suffering every winter. There is hope and an answer.