If you tend to feel a bit gloomy during the winter months, you are far from alone. Feeling gloomy, tired or unproductive from the holidays until spring is common. Nearly 15 percent of adults in the U.S. experience the winter blues, with another six percent suffering from a more serious condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Common signs of both conditions include lack of interest in usual activities, withdrawal from relationships, decreased energy, increased appetite, and reduced productivity. However, those experiencing winter blues will exhibit milder symptoms versus those with SAD.
It can be a tough time of year for many people. From returning back to reality after a long-anticipated break and post-holiday financial stress to difficulty maintaining a New Year’s resolution and adjusting to cold, dark weather (especially if you live in northern climates), it is easy to fall into a funk.
However, if you think you may be experiencing more than the winter blues, like SAD, do not dismiss your symptoms. Call your doctor to help determine if you’re experiencing the winter blues or SAD and what’s the best remedy. You may need a blood test to check your vitamin D levels (which can drop due to lack of sunlight), as well as a full blood count and other diagnostic tests to rule out other causes of these symptoms.
While these conditions affect many people, there are things you can do to help relieve some of the symptoms of seasonal depression until warm weather returns:
- Let the sun shine in. Exposure to natural light can help boost serotonin hormone production and lift your mood, help regulate your circadian rhythm (body clock) for better sleeping and waking, and alter your melatonin, the hormone also associated with sleep. If you’re experiencing SAD, your provider may recommend light therapy—exposure to sessions of bright light via a special light box, potentially causing a shift in mood-lifting brain chemicals.
- Get up and move! Experts often refer to exercise as nature’s antidepressant because it can increase serotonin as well as endorphins, the feel-good hormones. Moderate exercise of at least 30 minutes most days of the week may provide the biggest mood boost. Try hiking, skiing, show shoeing, sledding with the kids or trying a new class at the gym.
- Load up on wholesome foods. Studies show that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables were less likely to experience depression and other related conditions. Further, the winter blues can send many people straight for comforting foods that may not be the best for us. By making an effort to incorporate more produce into your diet, you can help counteract both the symptoms of these conditions and help avoid potential weight gain that can result.
- Make a plan to stay connected. One reason many people feel down this time of year is that they may not have much to look forward to now that the holidays are over. Plan a trip or a get-together with friends, or even try a volunteer opportunity. Having something on your calendar that you are excited about can help relieve some of the gloominess you may be experiencing.
- Utilize your EAP. Many employers offer access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at no cost. An EAP counselor can help you tackle some lingering issues following the holidays and establish a plan to help you get back on track. For example, if the stress of getting back into a routine is overwhelming, the work/life component of many EAPs can provide assistance finding childcare, eldercare and more. Plus, professional counselors can provide short-term assistance which may be just what is needed to help address the post-holiday blues, establish new and realistic goals and start the New Year on a good note. If you think you may be experiencing something more serious, such as the signs of SAD or depression, an EAP counselor can help by discussing concerns and directing you to qualified long-term help as needed.
- Stick to a schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to help normalize your circadian rhythms. And eat three meals a day, around the same time every day.
- Consider other mood-lifting options. If these self-care efforts are not giving you any relief, ask your practitioner about Cognitive Behavior Therapy, found to be beneficial for all types of depression, which may include SAD.
Remember, the winter blues are common, but if self-care measures don’t seem to help lift your mood, or if you have ongoing sadness, talk to your healthcare provider.
If you have thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 for confidential crisis support.