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Coping With the Winter Blues: Tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder

6 minute read

As much as some of us wish, we can’t sleep away the winter months in hibernation. However, we can find healthy ways to deal with unwanted feelings that come with it. The decreasing sunlight and cold weather in fall and winter can make some people feel down due to shorter days and colder temps; then begin to feel better in the spring and summer, which bring longer daylight hours. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and it’s a type of depression. The condition is characterized by a recurrent, seasonal pattern with symptoms of depression lasting four to five months per year. Here are tips for coping with seasonal affective disorder.

The symptoms of seasonal depression impact how you feel, think, and manage daily tasks. The “winter blues” can bring about mild depressive symptoms such as:

  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability
  • Appetite changes
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed

More severe signs and symptoms of SAD can include:

If you find yourself with any of these SAD symptoms for more days than not, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional for appropriate treatment options. Some people need regular behavioral therapy and potentially antidepressant medications and light therapy to overcome seasonal depression symptoms.

With the change of seasons, however, many of us are prone to at least some changes in mood. It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. Making some lifestyle changes can help manage your mood, support good behavioral health, and make the winter months much more enjoyable. Here are some self-help tips to lift your mood:

#1 Connect With Your Values

Choose intentional actions that hold your interest and concentration. It doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking. Keep it simple. Taking action can be as small as walking across the room or putting an item away. Keep your interest moving towards aspects of your life that give you energy as opposed to drain you. You’re at your best when your thoughts, feelings, and actions are in sync with what matters to you. Passive activities, such as watching television, are often too weak to hold your interest and can push you away from meaningful action.

#2 Catch Yourself, and Avoid “Avoiding”

Whenever you decide to put off a task (even for a moment), do at least a small bit instead. It’s normal to want to avoid anything that’s a perceived threat to our plans. Catch yourself avoiding, and then avoid your avoidance — at least for a minute or two.

For example, if you’ve been avoiding doing your laundry, and decide to make yourself a cup of tea before you get started, pull the clothes out of the dryer before you make the tea. You’ll find that once you get started, you’ll want to continue. If you’re still forcing yourself to do the laundry after a couple of minutes, stop; do your avoidance activity (drinking tea); and then reapply the “do a little first” strategy. Even a small sense of accomplishment can boost your mood.

#3 Exercise

Physical activity is a wonderful way to decrease anxiety and tip for seasonal affective disorder. Staying busy and increasing endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine is a natural and free antidepressant. Join a gym or a class where you’re around other people to increase social contact. Establishing an exercise routine can be a valuable lifestyle change that establishes a new structure for your day.

A regular exercise routine not only benefits your mental health but keeps your physical health in check too. Weight gain can be an effect of seasonal affective disorder due to feelings of lethargy and a tendency to eat high-calorie, high-fat comfort foods to cope with low mood. Exercise safeguards you against some of the health effects that can accompany weight gain.

#4 Do the Opposite of What You Feel Like Doing

Try doing the opposite of what your passive side is telling you to do, and you’ll find that you have begun a movement away from passivity. It can be tempting to wait until we “feel motivated” to take action, but the reality is, that feeling only comes by taking action and engaging with the environment. For example, if you feel like withdrawing from a confrontation, approach the person instead of hiding.

#5 Keep a Normal Sleep Schedule

Even though snow and ice might make you want to curl up all morning in your warm bed, it’s important to keep a set sleep schedule all week long, including weekends. Hypersomnia, or oversleeping, is common in the winter and it can also add to your low mood. A regular sleep pattern of going to bed and waking at the same time every day is one way to help regulate your circadian rhythm.

#6 Aim for Balance in Your Life

You can help maintain balance in your life by scheduling action and structure into your normal activities. These may include regular practices like getting up in the morning, making breakfast, exercising, taking a walk, talking to someone, answering email, and checking your voicemail. The last activity you schedule for the day should be to sit down and schedule the next day’s activities.

#7 Do Something New

Mix it up a little. Try a different hairstyle. Explore a part of town you’ve never visited. Novelty creates curiosity and keeps you from getting stagnant. The decision to do something new puts you in motion.

#8 Watch Your Diet

You may crave junk food or fast food when you’re feeling down but watch what you eat. Limit your caffeine and sugary drinks as they tend to create a “crash” feeling. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and help to increase serotonin or “feel-good” hormones in your brain. These go-to brain foods include spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, beans or lentils, and zucchini. Chocolate and almonds are also a good mood-boosting snack.

#9 Spend Time With Friends and Family

Socializing is important for your mental health, especially with only six or seven hours of natural light a day. Chatting with loved ones is always good but try to do something active like going for coffee, grabbing a meal, watching a movie, playing cards or board games, starting a new craft or art project, visiting a museum, or taking up a hobby together.

#10 Improve Your Living Space

When it’s cold, you might want to stay inside. Creating a warm, cozy living environment can help lift your mood. Some ways to improve your living space may include things like scented candles, fuzzy and cozy blankets for snuggling, making your bed every day, and staying organized. Spend quality time at home reading a new book, investing in a craft project, taking a warm and relaxing bath, or coloring in adult coloring books.

#11 Don’t Take Thoughts as Facts

We often get into trouble when we take our thoughts as absolute, undeniable facts. Our mind tends to travel down the same path it has in the past. Knowing this can help you work on changing your relationship with thinking.

Instead of hearing your own voice saying harsh or critical comments, hear Donald Duck squawking at you using the same words you say to yourself. This can create space between your thinking and thoughts. You can evaluate thoughts more effectively when you’re not so interwoven in them. By dropping the rope in your mental tug of war between you and your mind, you’ll have more energy to pursue what motivates you to get up every morning and enjoy life.

#12 Help Someone

When nothing seems to help change your mood, giving back is usually a surefire way to uplift you. Reach out to places you can volunteer like animal clinics, the Salvation Army resale shops, nursing homes, or nonprofits. Changing your thoughts may not always help you see a new perspective, however, volunteering in the community and seeing those who have barriers, obstacles, or less than you will usually help you appreciate life a little more and improve your mood.

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