Feeling the Winter Blues? These Easy Changes Could Make All the Difference

January and February are the toughest months—but these tips will help get you through.
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January and February are the toughest months—but these tips will help get you through.

It’s officially been winter for a while, which means it’s prime time for the dreaded seasonal slump to set in. Blustery days may no longer seem as magical. And if you’ve gotten caught in Snowmageddon-type weather, you probably feel like a prisoner in your own home.

I can empathize. Cold weather and darker evenings make going out seem more like a burden than fun. Before we know it, we feel a little down, hibernation-level sleepy, and lethargic. Dark evenings, cold weather, and spending more time indoors can all factor into developing the winter blues or its more serious and clinically diagnosable counterpart, Seasonal Affective Disorder. The winter blues affect about 10 to 20 percent of the population, and SAD can affect about 5 percent of the population, according to Villanova University. Three out of four individuals affected by SAD are women, and it typically occurs in individuals between the ages of 18 and 30, Mental Health America reports.

The reasons behind the winter blues and SAD are still unclear, but some researchers believe that reduced sunlight is linked to our circadian rhythm being out of sync and to increased levels of melatonin, a hormone known to cause symptoms of depression. Research is still being conducted to better understand the winter blues and why they affect some people but not others. For example, studies show that incidences of SAD in notoriously cooler Iceland are low when compared to populations across the United States.

The winter blues don’t have to be quite so gloomy. Take it from a mental health professional: Easy changes to your daily routine can help you conquer the midwinter slump.

01. Get moving.

We keep saying this, but exercise truly is a key component in boosting your mood. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that physically active people are 25 percent less likely to develop depression because it increases alertness while reducing fatigue, elevating mood, and improving sleep. Experts recommend about 75 to 150 minutes of exercise a week, depending on the intensity of your exercise.

Challenge yourself to find creative ways to work exercise into your day. Rise earlier to incorporate it into your morning routine. Invite friends over to try a new workout video. Learn a new winter sport such as skiing, or bundle up for a brisk walk with a steaming thermos of coffee or your favorite hot beverage. Don’t let the cold weather be an excuse to keep you from braving the outdoors and reaping the immediate health benefits of exercise.

02. Invest in your relationships.

When you’re experiencing the winter blues, hibernating under the covers sounds better than braving the cold to see friends and family. Yet that might be just what you need to help you feel less gloomy. The American Psychological Association recommends spending time with friends and family as an important component of reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation that can come with the winter blues.

Set regular coffee or exercise dates with others to force yourself to stay active and busy. And just because the holidays are over doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate. Cohost a gathering with friends to give everyone a reason to come together and fight the melancholy as a united front.

03. Schedule things to look forward to.

If traveling to a warm, sunny beach isn’t an option this winter, it doesn’t mean you can’t schedule mini-vacations, staycations, a class, or a concert to look forward to. Having upcoming events that you are excited about can help you keep your mind off yet another overcast and cold day.

Research shows that mere anticipation before a vacation is enough to benefit our mental health. So if you have a trip or other exciting event planned, build up the excitement: imagine what kind of activities you will do there, look up new restaurants to try, plan your wardrobe, or create an inspirational Pinterest board to keep track of all of your ideas. What have you always wanted to try but never got around to? Now is the perfect time to put it on the books.

04. Manage your stress.

Any time you're experiencing the winter blues, SAD, anxiety, or depression, managing your stress is crucial. Stress only exacerbates the symptom so try to reduce your exposure to it as much as possible. This means ensuring that you are living in a balanced way (as much as you can since life can get in the way).

Eat mood-boosting foods such as vitamin D–rich salmon and eggs. Get enough sleep (or catch up on missed sleep). Give yourself enough time each morning to begin your day in a peaceful way (no rushing out of the door allowed). Take breaks to avoid burnoutPractice gratitude throughout the day, whether that’s identifying three good things to be grateful for or by appreciating the present. De-stress before you go to bed by curling up with your favorite book (studies show reading reduces stress), unwinding with one of these cozy winter cocktails, or taking a luxurious bath. Embrace whatever creature comforts melt stress away for you.

05. Seek out vitamin D.

The Wall Street Journal reports that there have been some studies, including one conducted at Johns Hopkins University, linking consumption of vitamin D to a reduction in SAD symptoms. Michael Gloth, the researcher who conducted the survey, Michael Gloth, recommends 4,000 IUs of vitamin D-3 daily. Talk to your doctor about having your vitamin D levels tested to find out if you are deficient; she can recommend the correct dosage tailored to your needs. Vitamin D is also easily found at your local grocery or health food store. If, like me, you always forget to take your vitamins, set a recurring reminder on your phone so that you don't skip a day.

06. Try light therapy.

“Light therapy” has been found to be an effective treatment for the winter blues and SAD. A lightbox, which simulates high-intensity sunlight, is used for about 30 minutes a day. Dr. Norman Rosenthal, who first discovered SAD, shares most people benefit best from using the light box as early as possible in the morning. It is thought to help make up for the reduced amount of sunlight in the winter and balance your circadian rhythm. Research on light therapy has found it to be more effective than a placebo and just as effective as antidepressants in less severe cases of the winter blues and SAD. Some people find that it relieves their symptoms in a few days and, for others, it might take a couple weeks.

Light therapy lamps can be found online and in some stores from around $35 to over $100, depending on the model and features you are looking for. I have a light box, and I like to turn it on during particularly grey days while I answer emails. This is one case where multitasking actually works, so take advantage.

07. Embrace the things only winter can bring.

Finally, take a page out of the Norwegian approach to winter (also known as hygge): make your house cozy with candles, warm blankets, and invite friends over for hot beverages. Celebrate all the wonderful things that feel best in winter. When else can you go ice skating, snuggle in cozy sweaters, and sit around a fire enjoying spiked hot chocolate? You don’t have to let the winter blues take over. Embrace your favorite parts and, dare I say, you might even find that spring has come too soon.

Photo Credit: Britt Rene Photography