5 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

By Steve Calechman
January 14, 2022

For Beth Fleming, it all starts with daylight savings time. When the clocks go back, her anxiety amps up. She wants to go to bed earlier, and her creativity and enthusiasm drop. As the 40-year-old says, “The veil will come down.”

Blame seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While she wasn’t officially diagnosed until age 27, Beth says she’s felt the effects of SAD for as long as she can remember. Each year she hopes that it won’t show up, but then it does, and it stays until the warmer weather returns. “It’s a bummer,” she says. “I’m not used to running on lower energy.”

The cause of SAD isn’t exactly known, but it’s thought that the lack of sunlight disrupts circadian rhythms and levels of melatonin and serotonin. While symptoms vary, sleep is commonly compromised, leading to sluggishness and sometimes feelings of hopelessness. Some otherwise stable people may get SAD, but it often hits people who are already in therapy and can exacerbate existing problems, says Susan Albers, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. Fleming is bipolar and has obsessive-compulsive disorder. The medications that she normally takes help, but the SAD increases her rumination and intrusive thoughts to the point where, she says, “I make up tales I spin through my brain.”

SAD is closely related to the winter blues. But while the blues can come and go, SAD is more constant and upends daily functioning. The pattern goes something like this: The days are shorter. It’s cold outside. You’d rather hibernate, maybe binge-watch shows, possibly eat unhealthy food. You end up not going to gym or wanting to be around people. “It’s a spiral that feeds on itself,” says Carl Hindy, a clinical psychologist in Newmarket, New Hampshire.

It’s hard to break out of any pattern, particularly when you lack energy, but here’s how to navigate and possibly stave off the winter downtimes.

Take a Proactive Attitude

Winter is not a surprise, so prepare before it arrives with anything that makes you feel better, Albers says. It could be recommitting to the gym or signing up for a class or team. If you can pay for your lessons or membership in advance, that builds in a sense of obligation, and when you involve others, it creates a support system and furthers the commitment to show up and be around people, Hindy says. Fleming adds that she makes sure to be around the right people, who understand her condition and don’t expect her to always be “on.” Even if she doesn’t go out, she’ll check in on others, which gets her out of her head. “It distracts me from my malarkey,” she says.

Increase Your Dose of Vitamin D

Less exposure to sunlight means the body makes less vitamin D, which helps regulate serotonin levels. You can take a supplement—the daily recommendation is 400-800 I.U.—but Albers points out that there are a number of vitamin-rich foods you can add to your diet, such as fortified orange juice, tuna, eggs, and, one of the biggest sources, mushrooms, which make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight or special UV lights.

Stick to Your Schedule

When the short, dark days descend, it’s easy to veer off what you normally do, whether it’s eating healthy, exercising, or getting enough sleep. Staying, on track means resisting the siren call of your warm bed, comfy couch, and stocked refrigerator. When faced with such temptations, Hindy suggests considering your future self—the one at the end of the weekend or the start of spring who doesn’t want to end up feeling sluggish and carrying winter weight—and how much better that person will feel if you treat yourself well. “You feel good that you committed to yourself,” he says.

Creating new patterns is essential. Albers suggests “habit stacking,” where you link an existing behavior with a new one in order to have it take hold. As an example, take your vitamin D supplement right after brushing your teeth, or save your coffee until after you’ve exercised in the morning to jumpstart the day. For sleep in particular, Albers says that it helps to create a personal wind-down routine. What that looks like for you will depend on whether you need a physical or mental release at night, or some combination. Your wind-down routine could include taking a warm shower, reading, or meditating—whatever allows you to shake off the day and get into sleep mode.

Brighten Things Up

One treatment option for SAD is light therapy. Exposing yourself to a bright light (at least 10,000 lux), via a box or lamp, mimics natural light, and has been shown to greatly improve symptoms. Fleming is a big fan. She got her first SAD lamp as a Christmas present from her father. She sits next to hers for 20 minutes in the morning while meditating or making a mental checklist of what went well during the previous day. “It centers me,” she says. “With any mental health disorder, it’s checking in with yourself. It’s doing the best you can and having a human experience.”

Take the Long-Term View

While SAD can leave you feeling lazy—and guilty—it’s important to be gentle with yourself. Remind yourself that the depression happens not because of a personal flaw, but because of brain chemistry. Fleming says she learned that lesson in therapy, along with the reminder that while the condition always starts when the weather gets cold, it doesn’t last forever. She’s learned to co-exist with it, making it less of a battle and more of a process to build on. One year she added meditation to her routine. Next year, it might be yoga, but it’s something new for her toolbox that she can go to. “I don’t think I’m done,” she says. “Life is constantly being on top of the things that might challenge you.”

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