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Struggling With Seasonal Depression? 6 Tips to Help

Let’s support those who find the colder, darker months emotionally tricky.

Key points

  • SAD is a form of depression triggered by the winter months and affects about 10 million Americans.
  • SAD can manifest as overall sadness, decreased motivation, and just having a lower mood or "the blues."
  • Staying active, reaching out for support, and getting an inside sunlamp can help during these times.
Source: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay
Source: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

Roger always finds that his mood decreases around this time of year. "It's like, as soon as it starts getting colder and darker earlier in the year, I notice my mood changes." For years, he had noticed that his mood and mental health got worse during the colder months, but he was finally making the connection to the winter season. "I had no idea this was common," he said, his voice full of relief.

Once he had an explanation for his mood changes, he was able to apply some simple changes to his life. After only a week, he noticed a difference. At our next session, he shared that he had prioritized getting outside during the daylight hours, even for just 10 minutes. He also started taking online language lessons, which decreased his feeling of isolation and gave him something to look forward to.

Roger isn't alone. In fact, many people feel noticeably different during the winter months, largely due to the increased cold and decreased sunlight.

It can manifest as sadness, decreased motivation, and a lower mood: "the blues." For some, it can turn into depression, which is sometimes referred to as seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), if the symptoms increase. However, SAD is not always the same as the "winter blues." Roughly 10 million Americans meet the criteria for SAD, with women being four times more likely to be affected. (O'Keefe, 2019)

The condition is usually triggered by the cold and darkness of the winter months, often called the "winter blues." We are inside more often when it is colder and gets darker earlier. This can bring an overall feeling of being trapped or "cooped up" inside. This feeling, coupled with the decrease in vitamin D and other essential elements we get from the sunshine and from being outside, can bring on feelings of low mood and lower energy.

It is common for people to watch more TV and engage in more screen time during these months, which can also exacerbate these feelings, especially with recurrent negative and traumatic images on new stations and social media.

Symptoms include decreased energy and motivation, appetite changes, and sleep changes—either inability to sleep and insomnia or sleeping too much: low mood, feelings of irritability, and overall discomfort.

To boost mood and combat negative symptoms, I often recommend the following:

1. Decrease screen time: When inside a lot, it is easy to pick up the phone or tablet or pop on the TV. But try to limit the scrolling, as this has been shown to affect mood negatively because we look at other people having a good time while inside, feeling sad. Instead of scrolling, read a book. Or, if you must have the TV on, try putting on a show or a movie that takes place in the summertime. Seeing the sunshine and warmth can help increase your mood.

2. Get an indoor light therapy lamp: Because many who struggle with the winter blues are affected by the long, dark days, using a light therapy lamp can help.

3. Keep to a routine: When it is dark and dreary outside, it is easy to stay in bed or on the couch all day. But, as difficult as it is, try to stick to a routine. Get up on time, go to bed on time, and keep up with chores around the house. It will help your mind stay on task and help with motivation and mood.

4. Try to get outside: Yes, it is cold, but even being outside for 10 or 15 minutes will help increase mood because you will be engaging your muscles and your mind and decreasing the time spent indoors. If it is too cold for a quick walk around the block, go to a coffee shop and read a book near a window during daylight hours. It will give you the same feeling of having "gone out" without having to be out in the elements.

5. Start a new skill or hobby: If you have always wanted to learn French or better understand guitar, take an online class. Enroll in an online class, watch videos online, and start a new skill. This will engage your brain in ways that will increase serotonin and other feel-good chemicals, which will help to boost mood.

6. Get mental health support: Therapy is a great source for those looking to work through negative feelings during this time. For some, medications are essential to helping them get through the difficult months.

Ultimately, validate yourself. There is a lot of shame involved in experiencing mental health symptoms, even if they only happen during part of the year, like winter blues. Validating this can go a long way towards improving mood and experiences of winter blues.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


O'keefe, M. (2019). Seasonal Affective Disorder Impacts 10 Million Americans. Are You One of Them? Boston University. Seasonal Affective Disorder Impacts 10 Million Americans | BU Today | Boston University

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