Caring for Your Mental Health in Winter

Published by Annie Barrett: 
January 30, 2024

It’s February and the days are getting longer, but for many of us, especially in the Pacific Northwest, the days are still quite short. If the cold, gray, rainy weather makes you feel down, you are not alone! It’s not uncommon to experience fatigue, sadness, difficulty concentrating, and changes in your sleep schedule in the winter. 

For some people, these mood and physical changes are temporary and can be resolved with changes in lifestyle. However, for some people the winter blues can turn into Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which is a more serious mental health condition. 

SAD is more than just the blues. It is characterized by two weeks or more of depressive symptoms and the tendency to withdraw. It is considered a major depressive disorder that needs attention and treatment. 

The winter blues are characterized by:

  • Sadness in the fall and winter months 
  • Some trouble sleeping 
  • Lack of motivation 

Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterized by:

  • Severe sadness in the fall and winter 
  • Frequent sleep disturbances 
  • Loss of interest 
  • Decreased energy 
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 

The good news?  

There are several easy things you can do to beat the winter blues and these can also help ease SAD. 

Watch Your Media Consumption 

These days, time spent indoors often means time spent on screens. While consuming media clearly has benefits, too much media consumption isn’t good for us. Too much time spent consuming news media or social media can negatively affect mental wellbeing. To minimize the anxiety, stress, and sadness, be mindful of the time you spend consuming media and be mindful of how consuming media makes you feel. Take actions to limit the amount of time you spend in front of  a screen. Find other more satisfying activities to fill your  time. For more on creating a better relationship with your digital devices, click here.

Get Physical Activity 

Physical activity has been shown to boost mood, decrease the symptoms of depression, and reduce  stress. Any kind of fitness activity will do! Walking, running, skiing, yoga, swimming, weight lifting, etc. Getting outside daily, even for a few minutes a day, can make a huge impact on your mood and help  target the specific symptoms of SAD related to a lack  of daylight. For tips on staying active in winter, click here.

Try yoga!

Research finds that yoga is effective at reducing symptoms of depression and it’s a great activity for winter months. 

Call On Your Support System 

Loneliness and isolation make the effects of winter blues worse. Calling on your support system including friends, family, colleagues, and sponsors is key for wellbeing. Find a way to spend time with supportive people to boost your mood. For more ideas on boosting your social connections, click here

Focus On Your Sleep Routine 

Sleep is a huge factor in mood. Without adequate  sleep, circadian rhythms can go out of balance, impacting cortisol levels and hormone production. 

Tips to improve sleep include: 

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday. 
  • Creating a supportive bedtime routine. 
  • Exposing yourself to light as soon as you wake  up. 
  • Sleeping in cool and dark room. 
  • Getting off electronics an hour before bed. 

For more comprehensive strategies for sleep, click here.

Boost Your Mood with Food 

Eating healthy food is a simple way to improve your mood and research finds that certain foods are helpful for alleviating symptoms of depression.

Here are a few tips and ideas:

  • Eat a whole foods diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Get adequate protein with breakfast, lunch, and  dinner to improve your mood and to prevent carb  and sugar cravings later in the day. 
  • Eat foods high in vitamin D. Research has found that people with depression  have low vitamin D levels, and people with low  vitamin D are at a greater risk of depression.  

For more on eating a supportive diet in winter, click here.

Seek Out The Sun 

Make getting outside a priority in the  winter. SAD symptoms are worsened by lack of sun exposure. Being in the sunlight helps balance serotonin activity, increases melatonin production, balances your circadian rhythm, and increases vitamin D levels, which can lead to an improved emotional state. 

Consider Light Therapy If You’re Not Getting  Enough Sun 

Why? Shorter days appear to be a main trigger for SAD. Reduced sunlight in fall and winter can  

disrupt your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. This 24-hour “master clock” responds to  

cues in your surroundings, especially light and  darkness. Shortened daylight hours in winter can alter this natural rhythm and lead to SAD in certain people. Light therapy replaces the missing light with artificial light. 

How To Do Light Therapy

Light therapy consists of sitting in  front of a light box with 10,000 lux for 20 - 60 minutes every morning. Studies have shown that light therapy relieves SAD symptoms for as much as 70% of patients after a few weeks of treatment.  

If lifestyle modifications do not provide enough  relief from the winter blues, consider seeking  professional help.  

Psychotherapy is highly recommended to  treat depressive disorders and would likely  benefit any individual suffering from SAD. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has  proven to be very effective in treating SAD.

In a Crisis? 

Text 741741 to connect with a volunteer Crisis Counselor 

Make the Most out of Winter 

What helps you boost your mood in the winter?