Fall is here, and winter is coming. The days are shorter, the weather is getting colder, and your disposition might be turning, well…less pleasant.
Fall and winter can really take a toll on our moods, making even the warmest personalities turn as chilly as the air outside. It’s getting dark at 5 pm now, and we just want to hunker down and hibernate. Nothing sounds better than snuggling up in front of the TV with a fluffy blanket and some warm cookies. We find ourselves ready to turn in for the night by 7 pm.
The cluster of symptoms including sluggishness, lack of motivation, carbohydrate cravings, and mild depression that is known as the “winter blues” is quite common, especially for those who live in northern climates. It often strikes (or becomes worse) after the hustle and bustle of the holiday season passes because we don’t have parties, shopping, and other activities keeping us occupied.
While the term “winter blues” is sometimes used to refer to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it is important to understand that they are NOT the same. The winter blues is a subclinical (mild) condition that does not reach the level of a mental illness. SAD is more serious, and is a formally diagnosable form of depression.
The symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Less energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Greater appetite and/or carbohydrate cravings
- Increased desire to be alone
- Greater need for sleep and/or oversleeping
- Weight gain
Some of symptoms of the winter blues are similar to those of SAD, but are milder. They include a low or sad mood as well as:
- Decreased energy, fatigue
- Change in appetite
- Lack of motivation
If low mood symptoms continue for more than two weeks, and are significantly impairing day-to-day functioning, a healthcare practitioner should be seen for a full depression screening.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to brighten your mood, even on the darkest and chilliest of days.
Go outside every day, weather permitting: The effects of daylight still help. Yes, it is cold outside, but look on the bright side: there are less insects to pester you and you won’t be drenched in sweat. Play outside with your children or dogs, if you have them. The cool air will feel refreshing and will perk you up.
Catch some rays: On sunny days, go outside and soak up some of the “Sunshine Vitamin” – Vitamin D. It’s unique in that it is a vitamin AND a hormone your body can make with help from the sun. Research suggests that low levels of vitamin D are associated with mood disorders and depression. Some vitamin D researchers have found that somewhere between 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen usually leads to sufficient vitamin D synthesis. Indoor light therapy can help, too.
Get moving: Exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week. If you have a gym membership, use it! If you don’t, now is the time to consider getting one, but working out in the privacy of your own home is just fine, too.
Listen to music: When you’re feeling down, music can help you feel better. Research suggests the kind of music matters: Classical and meditative sounds seem to be particularly uplifting, but heavy metal and techno can actually make depressive symptoms worse.
Note: The four items listed above can be combined! Go outside and get some fresh air and sun while you walk or run with your favorite tunes.
Brighten up your indoor environment: You aren’t a vampire! Open those blinds and shades and let natural light in. De-clutter your space and add brightly colored objects to create a more cheerful mood.
Eat a healthful diet: This might be challenging during the holiday season, but over-indulgence can sap your energy and make you feel sluggish. Here’s a list of nutrient-rich foods that can boost your mood and energy levels. Try to include some of them in your diet every day. Oh, and don’t make those tasty holiday treats forbidden – that will only make you crave them more. Moderation is key.
Be social: Don’t be a hermit! Stay involved with your social circle and regular activities. Social support is very important, whether it means hosting game night at your house, going ice skating, or meeting friends for coffee at a local cafe.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule: While it is very tempting to stay in your warm, cozy bed on chilly mornings, it is important to try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This trains the body and the mind to get the proper amount of sleep. And, avoiding naps helps to facilitate a set nightly sleep schedule at night.
Help others: Volunteering can help improve your mental health, and some experts say it can help alleviate depressive symptoms. Websites like VolunteerMatch and AllForGood can help you find opportunities to lend a helping hand in your community.
Begin a new project: Organize your bookshelves, drawers, and closets. Donate items you no longer need to your favorite charity, or sell them online.
Learn something new: Have you always wanted to learn how to play guitar, paint, speak French, or write computer programs? Long, cold winter days offer the perfect excuse to stay inside and learn a new skill, or improve upon existing ones.
Remember, you are human and it is normal to experience some blue moods on occasion. But, if you find that you are feeling down on a regular basis, or you think it is possible you or someone you care about has depression, seeking the help of a professional is a good idea.