Updated: Mar 14
Experts estimate up to 15% of the US population suffers from some kind of seasonal changes in mood, appetite, sleep or energy — also known as the Winter Blues, or the more severe form being Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Worse yet, the Coronavirus pandemic is believed to be exacerbating the problem, with no end in sight until spring.
What causes these seasonal mood swings is still a bit of a mystery, but many experts believe it's caused by changes in serotonin (which regulates your mood) and melatonin levels in your brain causing a disruption in your daily rhythm and making it more difficult to adjust to seasonal time and daylight changes. Others say a lack of vitamin D (which we derive from natural sunlight) may also be a culprit, as vitamin D and serotonin levels are directly related.
In any case, we do know the symptoms of seasonal mood changes, marked with feelings of depression, changes in appetite, weight gain, social detachment, erratic sleep patterns, agitation, lack of focus, and more. Scary stuff when you live in place that's known for harsher winters!
The most extreme cases of SAD often call for specialized treatments such as light therapy, antidepressant medications, mental health counseling, and vitamin supplements (if you're suffering from severe depression or thoughts of self harm, seek professional help immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.) But for those struggling with a case of the Winter Blues, experts say there are ways to help boost your mood until we can soak up the summer sun once again.
5 Tips to Shake the Winter Blues
Live On The Bright Side
Among the most common treatments for seasonal mood changes is light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a bright light box or using a dawn simulator first thing in the morning "to stimulate your circadian rhythms and suppress the natural release of melatonin," according to EveryDayHealth. But exposing yourself to more light is also a proven preventative measure. Upping your exposure to mood-boosting light without traditional therapeutics is easy — when the weather permits, make sure to take a step outside and bask in the sunshine when you can! When you can't make it outside, keep your window shades and blinds open during the day to bring in as much natural light as possible, or consider installing a Sun Tunnel or skylight to fill your home with even more natural light throughout the day.
Aromatherapy may also help battle the symptoms of seasonal depression. Popular essential oils can influence the part of your brain that controls your mood and internal clock, according to Dr. Ani Kalayjian, who specializes in traumatic stress (via EveryDayHealth). Adding a few drops of popular essential oils like citrus and lavender to a bath, or applying them topically can help you regain a calm and relaxed state of mind, and promote a healthier sleep cycle.
Regular exercise is another proven way to release more of those mood boosting chemicals in your brain any time of year, making it an excellent (and healthy) way to combat the Winter Blues. Because of the extra sunlight exposure, outdoor exercise should be your first choice. When it's too cold outside, working out in a well-lit space near windows is the next best thing. Creating a workout routine you can stick to will also help against the weight gain often associated with seasonal mood swings, according to Dr. Kalayjian.
Talk About It Finding an escape from your own negative thoughts and feelings sometimes requires professional help, but many find that staying connected with friends and family serves as a positive distraction from the short, depressing winter days. Planning fun indoor or outdoor activities with loved ones is a great way to give you something positive to look forward to instead of being left alone with your thoughts. And simply talking about your feelings with those close to you may shed more light on your situation and help you process and address your feelings in a more positive way — you may realize you're not alone and can help some one else feel better too! For more severe cases of SAD, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. The National Institute of Mental Health cites the benefits of talk and behavioral therapy for those in difficult situations or struggling with seasonal mood changes. While not an immediate cure-all, a long-term study has shown these types of therapy have longer lasting positive effects than other forms of treatment, according to the NIMH.
Stick To A Schedule Lastly, limit the amount of time you have to spend dwelling on the negatives with a healthier daily routine. Maintaining a routine can be difficult at times, and even lead you into a rut, but creating a schedule full of things that make you happy and keep you productive not only regulates your sleep and eating times — both important factors in your overall health — but can help minimize the time spend alone with your negative thoughts and feelings. Work and/or school schedules aren't usually up to us, but the rest of the day is, so make the most of it! Schedule enough time each day to do the things that make you happy, like playing with your kids or pets, exercising, cooking, spending time with friends and family, or your favorite form or entertainment. However small, moments like these allow you to forget about "the bad" and focus on something good for a little while, and with enough moments like these built into your day it'll be time for bed before you know it! Of course life has a funny way of not sticking to your schedule, but that's OK. Making a deliberate effort to work a little happiness into each day will give you something positive to look forward to, as well as a fun escape from the rigors of day-to-day life.
The Winter Blues is a real thing, it just effects everyone differently. If this winter has you feeling down, give these tips a try — those sweet summer days are just around the corner!