The winter months start off strong: November brings Thanksgiving, December brings Christmas, and the beginning of January has the festive feel of a New Year. But then what? Dreary January, bleak February, and miserable March. During that bleak stretch of wintry months, many of us experience the “winter blues” or even seasonal depression, which is four times more common in women than in men. The reason for this difference isn’t fully understood, but some researchers theorize that this difference could be due to women’s higher estrogen levels, which affect serotonin. If you find yourself feeling down during this time, there are some things you can try to help brighten the dark days.
Understanding the Symptoms
The “winter blues” refers to the overall experience of lethargy, low motivation, and a general “blah” feeling once the weather turns colder, the days become shorter, and there is less daylight. It’s estimated that between ten and twenty percent of the U.S. population experiences some form of the winter blues.
The winter blues is a less severe form of seasonal depression (also called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD), which affects about five percent of the population. Symptoms typically appear during late fall or early winter and disappear in spring or summer. They include many of the common symptoms of depression, such as:
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
As well as seasonally-specific symptoms:
- Overeating (in addition, often craving carbs)
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal
So what can you do during these cold, dark, and snowy months? There are several options that can not only help you manage symptoms, but also help you thrive during this time.
Light therapy has been a tried and true treatment for seasonal depression for decades. This consists of using a special lamp that emits 10,000 lux and filters out harmful UV rays to mimic sun exposure. You sit with the lamp about 2 to 3 feet away from you and off to the side (don’t stare directly into the light) while you read, write, listen to music, talk to your family members, or just sit and relax for 15 to 30 minutes. Using the lamp every day has been shown to improve mood in as early as four days and can have a full effect in about two weeks.
One study found that 70 percent of participants experienced relief from their seasonal depression symptoms in a few weeks. You can find affordable lamps at most major retailers, but check with your provider first before using since it isn’t recommended for people with diabetes, retina conditions, those on certain medications, or people diagnosed with bipolar.
Researchers believe that low vitamin D levels may play a role in seasonal depression. With less sunlight and time outdoors, we are exposed to the sun less in the winter than in the summer months, which means that our natural vitamin D levels are likely not as strong in the winter. Talking with your doctor about increasing your vitamin D levels might be a good idea if you experience seasonal depression.
Exercise can be a powerful tool to help manage symptoms of seasonal depression. Regular exercise has been shown to boost not only your energy but also your mood. Incorporating some kind of exercise into your day will likely help you feel better overall, improve your mood, and minimize the effects of stress that you may be experiencing. Luckily, there are many options even when it is cold out, ranging from trying out a workout video from home, joining a gym, or bundling up to go for a walk with a friend.
During the winter, we tend to spend more time indoors and are less eager to venture out to spend time with people. This can compound the feelings of loneliness and isolation you may already be experiencing from seasonal depression. As much as you might be tempted to lean into those hibernation feelings, it’s important to make sure you are regularly connecting with your support network and those people whose company you enjoy the most. You might not feel like seeing people, but your spirits will be lifted when you make the effort to spend time with others.
Remember when hygge was trending? This Danish term refers to embracing the “coziness” of the winter months by cultivating a comforting atmosphere and surrounding yourself with the company of people you enjoy. This can mean actually using that fireplace in your house for the first time, embracing the magical glow of candlelight, baking, having friends over to curl up in warm blankets for a movie night, etc.
If your seasonal depression is impacting your ability to function on a daily basis, attending regular therapy sessions can be helpful. Your therapist can not only evaluate and give a diagnosis, but they can also help you identify specific ways to treat your depressive symptoms. In particular, they can help you make behavioral and lifestyle changes as well as help you identify and change any cognitive thinking patterns that may be contributing to your symptoms.
Please note: The information included in this article is meant for informational purposes only and is not meant to provide a diagnosis or treatment plan.