5 Science Backed Strategies to Prevent the “Winter Blues”

When the weather cools down and snowflakes start falling there tends to be two camps of people. Those who are obsessively checking the weather and have had their skis waxed since the first week of October …annnnnd the rest of us. 

Not really, of course. There are plenty of things to love about winter. Sparkly snowflakes. Soup simmering away on the stovetop. Snowy adventures. Endless cups of tea and cocoa. 

But the sun setting at 4pm is not usually one of those things. 

And if the shorter days and colder weather leave you feeling fatigued and a little blah, you may be dealing with the “Winter Blues.” 

The blues are a milder form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that is triggered by the change in the seasons. It’s symptoms are similar to other forms of depression and include things like: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Changes to appetite or weight 
  • Changes in sleep patterns 
  • Feeling blue  

The big difference between SAD and other forms of depression is that the timing of the symptoms seems to follow a seasonal pattern. In the U.S., it’s estimated that between 4 and 6 percent of people are affected by SAD and somewhere around 20 percent struggle with the milder form of “winter blues.”

While the cause is not entirely clear, it’s thought to have some relationship to disruptions in your body’s circadian rhythms and less exposure to sunlight during the daytime hours. Other theories suggest that the seasonal changes can impact hormones such as melatonin and serotonin that help to regulate sleep and mood. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of simple lifestyle strategies you can incorporate to support a healthy mood even when the sun isn’t around as often. However if your symptoms continue despite healthy lifestyle changes or your symptoms last longer than 2 weeks or are severe, it’s important to talk to a mental health professional.  

GET OUTSIDE EVERY DAY 

Spending time outdoors can have a profound effect on your mental health!  Several studies have found that walking in nature is associated with decreased levels of anxiety and may be useful clinically as a supplementary treatment for SAD and major depressive disorders. Nature has the capacity to promote feelings of awe. Even just looking at water or trees can lower stress, improve overall well-being, and provide a serious mood boost!

EAT LOTS OF COLOR

Does eating more color in your diet lead to a more colorful life? 

The research says yes! 

We don’t always connect the foods we are eating with how we feel, but the food-mood connection is real. When we don’t feel well, we often don’t make the best decisions and then we feel worse and find ourselves reaching for more simple carbs and sugars and the cycle continues. But, focusing on a more colorful, anti-inflammatory Mediterranean style diet has been shown to support brain health and even decrease the risk for depression

So “eat the rainbow” is more than just a cute phrase. There’s actually a lot of science behind it too! 

TRY A LIGHT BOX

Bright light therapy uses exposure to artificial lights that mimic natural sunlight to help optimize your body’s circadian rhythms. The use of light boxes is widely recognized as a first line therapy for SAD and just 20-30 minutes of exposure in the mornings can have a pretty profound impact on your mood! 

MOVE YOUR BODY 

Moving your body is one of the quickest (and most fun) ways to change your mood! Regular movement benefits all aspects of our health. From improving cardiovascular health, and joint mobility to increasing energy and improving sleep quality. 

But, while there are many, many physical benefits, I’m convinced the real benefit comes from the clarity of mind that it brings. Exercise has been shown to decrease depression and anxiety, improve self-esteem and wellbeing, and the flood of endorphins you get makes almost everything feel a little more manageable. 

PRACTICE GRATITUDE 

It’s absolutely ok not to feel ok all the time, but it’s harder to feel sad when your mind and heart are full of gratitude. Several studies have found that gratitude increases physical and emotional wellbeing, improves relationships, and creates a more positive overall outlook on life. Changing your focus to all that you have can be exactly the mental shift needed to get through the long winter months. 

STAY SOCIAL 

The research on loneliness is clear, when we have healthy connections we are simply better people. And happier too. 

Eating well and moving your body are important pieces of the wellness puzzle, but relationships, community, and a sense of purpose are absolutely essential. Recent studies have shown that there is a strong association between social isolation and symptoms of depression and researchers have found that the effects of loneliness are as harmful as if you were smoking 15 cigarettes a day! 

In his book, Together; the Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Vivek Murti, former surgeon general, argues that loneliness is one of the most detrimental threats facing our modern society and the impact that it has on our overall health. 

More kindness and connection actually translates into happier, healthier workplaces, families and communities. And during these strange times of COVID-19 we need human connection more than others. 

The things that help support a healthy mood are the same things that support your overall well being all year long, so no need to stop once the days start getting longer.

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