Dark mornings, darker evenings, and chilly gray days in between mean winter is here — and with the coldest season come the winter blues. There’s no clinical diagnosis for the “winter blues,” but experts at the National Institutes of Health say the so-called winter blues are fairly common and are usually marked by feeling more down than usual, sad, or less energized.
Because the winter blues is not a discrete medical condition, an accurate measure of how many people it affects is difficult to know for sure. Estimates suggest anywhere from 14 (1) to 20 percent of American adults experience such seasonal mood changes.
A small percentage of people who experience a change of mood with the season do have seasonal depression, a more severe condition that is a medical disorder, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD affects about 1 to 9 percent of Americans (prevalence rates differ, depending on location and how severe the change of season actually is), according to research published in November 2015 in the journal Depression Research and Treatment.
According the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is a recurrent form of major depression, characterized by feelings of hopelessness and despair, fatigue, problems sleeping and concentrating, and changes in appetite. (4) Symptoms of winter blues are milder than those of SAD, but that doesn’t mean you should brush off your blah feeling.
“Feeling blue for a period of time is not, per se, normal,” says Jacqueline Gollan, PhD, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “When people feel blue, it’s a signal that something in their life needs attention.”
And there are things you can do to lift your mood. This winter, try these bad-mood zappers to beat the winter blues and stay well all winter long:
1. Lace Up Your Running Shoes and Get Moving
Getting at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity four times a week has been shown to reduce depressive mood, says Dr. Gollan. “And there are a variety of ways to get exercise,” she points out. Get a gym membership if that’s what it takes to keep you warm and working out, but you could also try riding your bike to work or running up and down the stairs.
2. Set Your Alarm Clock and Stick to a Sleep Routine
Tempting as it might be to sleep in on dark mornings, it’s best to stick with a regular sleep schedule — which means waking up at the same times on weekdays and weekends. Establish a routine wake-up time and a soothing bedtime ritual, and if you aren’t already in this habit, allow three or four weeks to get used to it, advises Gollan. It’s important to get at least seven hours of sleep every night for your overall health, according to guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation. Also, make sure that your sleeping area is comfortable, slightly cool, and free of noisy distractions.
3. Queue Up a Stream of Laugh-Out-Loud Films
Experts believe that laughter actually stimulates processes in your brain that counter depressive symptoms. And since chuckling is downright contagious, you can invite a few pals over to share the popcorn.
4. Warm Yourself Up With a Mug of Real Hot Cocoa
It’s a good idea to make a few tweaks to your diet during the winter, says Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, author of The Good Mood Diet. First, get cozy with some homemade hot chocolate, using nondutched, natural cocoa powder (which is high in heart-healthy and mood-boosting flavonoids). “Plus, this drink gives a wonderful sense of something delicious, a treat, and a ritual to look forward to,” she says. She recommends drinking cocoa in the evening to prepare you for sleep. Make it with fortified milk, which provides a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and vitamin D — the combination helps increase serotonin levels, which help us relax, Dr. Kleiner says.
Kleiner also recommends eating fish — especially fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, lake trout, sardines, or albacore tuna — three to five times a week, as this can help boost mood; plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; and at least one egg with the yolk (a good source of choline, which helps regulate nerve function and metabolism among other functions, and therefore is important to keep energy levels stable) each day, preferably for breakfast.
5. Host a Festive Party — But Don’t Stress
‘Tis the season to deck the halls and host a small seasonal party. And if it’s already after the holidays, any excuse to host a gathering of friends will do — try a dinner party, cheese tasting, or board game night. Planning an event will give you something to look forward to — and it could also put you on other people’s invite lists (more fun for you!).
On a cautionary note, Gollan says that “chronic interpersonal hassles do increase perceived stress.” So if there’s a relationship in your social circle or family that’s an ongoing source of stress, give yourself a present and work it out, ideally before the party.
6. Give Yourself a Manageable Task to Accomplish
It’s important to build activities into your day — even chores, like cleaning the floor — that will give you a sense of competence and accomplishment. According to one psychological theory, we all have an innate need to feel competent in order to also grow emotionally, have a sense of integrity, and maintain well-being. (6)
Balance the hard work with little things that bring you pleasure, like treating yourself with fresh flowers or, yes, that homemade cup of hot cocoa.
7. But Don’t Let Your To-Do List Get Too Out of Hand
Don’t overwhelm yourself with lists of projects and chores just because you can’t do other activities you might spend time doing in other seasons. If you love to garden in spring and summer as a stress-relieving activity, that doesn’t mean spending those same hours in the winter cleaning your closets is going to do you the same amount of good — nor be as enjoyable.
Complete the business you need to take care of, and do it on time.
“Behavioral activation is an important strategy,” says Gollan. Decide to stop procrastinating on the unpleasant stuff that could just snowball into more stress later, like unpaid bills, so you’ll have more time to do things you do enjoy. Get the tools you need to get organized.
8. Book a Staycation — Even if It’s a Mini One
Most people get a lift when they have something to look forward to. If your coworker’s upcoming Bermuda vacation has you dreaming of traveling, Gollan says you can save money and still get a boost by planning mini-getaways closer to home. You may not have the budget or time off of work to take an exotic trip, but it’s much easier to make time for and plan a local staycation treat, such as an afternoon ice skating with friends, trying out a new restaurant in a nearby town, or going to a concert.
9. Consider Light Therapy if You Can’t Get the Sunshine You Need
It’s dark when you leave for work and dark when you get home, so how are you going to get your daily dose of natural sunshine? And if you don’t think less sunlight during winter months can affect you, your mood, or your energy levels, think again. A decrease in sunlight can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms, and cause a drop in serotonin levels and Vitamin D levels, which can lead to depressive symptoms.
If you have the flexibility and the weather allows for it, schedule in an early-morning walk or lunchtime stroll. If you don’t, consider this option, which is especially beneficial for people with full-fledged seasonal depression: a full-spectrum light box. Light therapy can help regulate your body’s circadian rhythms and its natural release of the hormones that help you feel energized and the ones that help you sleep.
Gollan cautions that these are actually pretty powerful tools (and pricey!), so you really should work with a doctor or mental health professional who can advise you on when during the day to use it, and for how long.
10. Don’t Hesitate to See Your Healthcare Professional
“Blues can be part of some other system,” says Gollan. Chronic pain, headaches, sleep disorders, and even heart disease are all linked to depression symptoms, so check in with your healthcare provider to make sure your winter blues aren’t something more serious.