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Feeling more anxious, sluggish, or irritable during these shorter winter days? You’re not the only one experiencing a seasonal funk. The “winter blues” are real. In fact, 4 to 6 percent of Americans can experience a winter depression, and another 10 to 20 percent exhibit mild symptoms of SAD, the clinical term for weather woes known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“SAD typically occurs during the fall and winter months and will improve with the arrival of spring,” says Julia Lehrman, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist. “There are a variety of symptoms which can include a change in appetite, fatigue, sleeping more than normal, avoidance of social situations, an increased sensitivity to rejection, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, and others.”

Exposure to sunlight, or rather a lack thereof during the dark days of winter, is a main cause of SAD. “Biochemical imbalances in the brain are brought on by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight during the winter months. The decrease in sunlight can also disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, our internal biological clock,” Lehrman says.

When our biological clocks are off, so too are our “sleep-wake” cycles, meaning the times we wake up and the times we fall asleep. Lehrman adds that reduced sunlight can cause serotonin levels—a feel-good brain chemical responsible for mood regulation—to drop. Vitamin D (sunshine naturally brings it to us in the form of D3), which also influences our serotonin levels, can decrease as well.

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Photo courtesy of Eduard Militaru/Unsplash

Since SAD is said to be brought on by a lack of light, it’s no surprise that one of Lehrman’s primary tips for beating the winter blues involves increasing our sunny D intake. Opening the blinds, sitting close to a window, or taking a brisk walk (be brave! fight the cold!) are easy ways to accomplish taking in some sunnier skies. “This is especially important when you first wake up,” explains Lehrman. “It regulates your circadian rhythm so you stay on track.”

Purchasing a fluorescent light box (brighter than those you’d typically find indoors)—also sometimes known as a “happy lamp”—is an alternative way to boost your mood without facing freezing temps. Lehrman advises sitting in front of the light box at the specified distance, then going about your normal activities like eating breakfast or working on the computer. Ingesting vitamin D3 via supplements (powders or capsules) can be another way to help your body absorb the benefits of a sunshine boost if going outside isn’t an option.

Though the winter blues can make you feel like pulling the duvet over your head or canceling plans, continuing to enjoy your everyday hobbies is vital for mood-maintenance. Despite every effort to stay tucked under the covers, keeping up with your weekly sun salutation or staying committed to plans can help you maintain a regular biorhythm. Block time on your calendar with reminders, Lehrman advises, to stay on track and upbeat.

Exercise could even end up being your saving grace when experiencing SAD. “A heated yoga or Pilates class may be especially helpful for some people with SAD,” adds Lehrman. “The meditation and breathing components of yoga can also help promote relaxation and decrease stress.”

But above all, never doubt when to reach out.

“Human beings are social creatures wired for connection,” says Lehrman. “Maintaining relationships is a crucial component to our overall well-being. Socializing helps people feel more connected and reduces isolation.”

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Whether you choose to confide in a therapist, trusted friend, or loved one, reaching out to someone else can give you a sense of belonging, acceptance, and compassion. Knowing that there are other people going through what you’re experiencing helps you feel more connected.

“Sometimes it helps to have someone to listen and be there for support,” says Lehrman. “Many people benefit from talking openly about their experiences and whatever is concerning them in a safe, confidential environment. [Professional] therapy is an opportunity to really explore experiences rather than deny, avoid, or hold them in—which aren’t effective strategies for coping with SAD.”

If you’re dealing with the winter blues or not, try reaching out to someone during these darker winter months—you may light up their day.


Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.