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11 Ways to Make Winter a Little Brighter

Seasonal dips in mood are normal, but there are tools that can help.

Key points

  • It's natural for a person's mood to dip in the winter, even if they don't have Seasonal Affective Disorder.
  • Fewer daylight hours and colder weather can significantly impact mental health.
  • Fortunately, people can take proactive steps to protect it, such as getting enough sleep, spending time in nature, staying active, and more.

Many people’s moods start to dip when the days get shorter, and the weather gets colder. Even if you don’t have Seasonal Affective Disorder, the shift to less daylight can be very difficult. If you’ve ever felt “blah” at the beginning of winter as darkness falls, these research-backed tools can make a difference.

1. Protect your sleep.

Continual sleep disruptions can raise your risk of anxiety and depression—and they, of course, can be symptoms of it as well. But oftentimes, winter brings even more sleep disruptions than usual—whether through daylight saving time, travel, or holiday schedules. But if you can try to protect your sleep in any way possible, have a more regular bedtime by trying to put your devices away a little earlier, use blackout curtains if the earlier first-morning sun is making you wake earlier, or spend a little extra time making your bedroom as comfortable as possible in terms of temperature and sound—it can make a meaningful difference on your mood.

2. Use artificial light as a supplement.

There are many different types of light options to try to better simulate the daylight that is dwindling outside. From daylight bulbs that you can put in regular lamps to alarm clocks that simulate dawn, many of these are inexpensive and plentifully available. There are also light boxes that serve as more of an actual treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder and should be considered when you really feel a seasonal change in mood. It is advisable to check with a physician or mental health professional first to make sure you are buying one from a reputable source and that there are no particular risk factors for you that you need to be aware of.

3. Maximize your natural light.

During the winter, it’s crucial you take advantage of sunlight when you can—even five minutes of it might make a noticeable difference. This includes going outside at lunch if possible, taking more walks, and sitting near windows when working. Some people find it helpful to make simple schedule tweaks to maximize their sun—like going to bed a little earlier so that they can get up a little earlier to soak it in.

4. Prioritize social connection.

Positive relationships with others are one of the greatest boosts for our physical and mental health. Increased darkness often leads to an increased subjective feeling of isolation, as well as a literal increase in isolation: People walk their dogs more quickly, linger outside less, and are much less prone to gathering in public spaces when it’s cold outside. You can counteract this by being more proactive in scheduling social time with people whose presence brings metaphorical light—the connection truly is great for your health.

5. Seek out sensory experiences.

These are so important and can be so soothing and also stimulating, depending on what you need. Our eyes are being starved for light, but we can try to make the other senses happy. Think about bringing more music into your environment. Or more positive smells. It’s probably not just because of the holidays that people tend to bake more when it’s cold and dark outside.

Think about hot baths or stimulating your tastebuds with interesting new foods; seek out visual beauty in terms of art or immersive film experiences. It really does make a difference and expand your world to feel less closed and dark.

6. Cultivate your hygge.

You likely have heard of this concept of “hygge,” or at least have seen marketing trends try to co-opt it so that somebody can make more money on throw pillows—but it’s a Scandinavian mindset of coziness, and it blasted onto the North American scene a few years back. It’s all about texture, warmth, and light. Imagine reading a book by the fire with fuzzy socks while some bread bakes in the oven.

Hygge evokes a feeling of well-being, comfort, and safety. My clients who struggle with seasonal mood dips often embrace this idea and find some real joy in it. Winter is not summer—even if you live in a place that’s warm year-round—so hygge is about leaning into the coziness of the winter for all that it is.

7. Exercise.

Exercise—or any body movement—can feel particularly difficult when it’s dark and cold and when we’re eating a lot of holiday treats. But the science is very clear—body movement really can help counteract seasonal blues. It increases our energy levels, and it helps release endorphins that improve our moods. Controlled studies really put it up there as an antidepressant with a pretty impressive level of efficacy.

But, of course, in the winter, when we most could use physical exercise, it’s hardest to get into a groove. So if you already have a way of moving your body that you like, make sure to really let yourself prioritize it. And if you’re stuck in a rut, start small. How about dancing to one song in the privacy of your room to increase your heart rate and get a cardio boost? How about doing five minutes of stretching to reduce your muscle tension? How about taking the stairs rather than the elevator a couple of times a week to your office?

8. Stay close to nature.

We know how good nature is for us, and part of what happens with seasonal symptoms is that we are less exposed to nature, and that, in turn, contributes to our negative mood. More fluorescent lighting, less ventilation, less open space, and less green can all make us more anxious and less calm. So, letting plant life in, in addition to just the daylight that we talked about before, can be very beneficial.

Did you know that modern research shows that house plants can actually improve mood? See if you can bring some nature inside. And if you can take a winter hike, or run and jump in some leaves, or bundle up and go on a walk, all the better.

9. Check your vitamin levels.

You should always check with your physician before changing anything in terms of your vitamin intake or taking supplements, but there is the potential that various vitamin or nutrient deficiencies can make the winter blues worse. This is especially true with the potential role of vitamin D—which is lessened in our bodies when we don’t get as much sunlight and is also associated with an increased risk of depression—though the research has been mixed. If it’s been a while since you’ve had a full medical checkup, or if you haven’t had your vitamin and mineral levels checked, it could be worth pursuing.

10. Plan a break.

Experiences tend to be more rewarding as gifts than objects are, and that’s likely because of the added anticipation of having the experience and the reward of the recollection of it afterward—whereas, with objects, we may get desensitized to them quickly. Looking forward to taking a trip is a gift in and of itself. And even if you don’t have the budget or the possibility of time off work enough to go on an actual vacation somewhere, planning a special outing or experience can help break up the winter blues significantly.

11. Introduce novelty.

Winter doldrums seem to be about not only a dip in one’s mood but also, sometimes, a deeper, existential boredom, especially after the hubbub of December is over. January and February can feel very monotonous, with the anticipation of the new year and holidays all done. So, seek out some novelty. It helps build new pathways in your brain and gets you to wake up a little bit—which can improve your outlook and your energy.

More from Andrea Bonior Ph.D.
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