Winter can be a tough time for many people. Cold, dreary weather, shorter days and diminished sunlight can combine to leave you feeling tired, unsettled, lethargic and even depressed. While most people likely experience some amount of winter blues–a drop in their overall mood and wellbeing–others may notice an uptick in existing depression symptoms during the winter months, or actually struggle with depressive episodes that are not present during other times of the year. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a signficant mental health concern and can be distinguished from winter blues in terms of severity.
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is more than just the winter blues. It is a type of depression that lasts for a season, typically the winter months, and goes away during the rest of the year. Symptoms of SAD are the same as those of depression. They can vary in severity and often interfere with personal relationships. Symptoms include fatigue, pervasively sad mood, loss of interest, sleep difficulty or excessive sleeping, craving and eating more starches and sweets, weight gain, feelings of hopelessness or despair and thoughts of suicide.
If you think you are suffering from SAD, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional. While it is not uncommon to feel a little down and listless during the winter, any significant change in your regular lifestyle or impairment in your ability to accomplish the routine and expected tasks of your day-to-day life should be treated seriously. It is okay if winter leaves you feeling a bit moody, but it should not leave you feeling like you cannot function or properly care for yourself and your wellbeing.
Whether you are just feeling a little low, or actually suffering from seasonal depression, I have some tips for how to make it through the winter months and come out relatively unscathed by springtime. But first, a little background:
I grew up in Michigan. Not only is winter in Michigan cold, but depending on the year and the collective bad luck of all Michiganders (or Michiganians, if you must), winter can last anywhere from mid-October to late May. My birthday is in the back half of April and more often than I would have liked, I found myself celebrating in winter clothes. It has snowed on my birthday. That is not okay. My husband and I, though living in Baltimore by that time, got married in Michigan at the end of May in 2008. While we were lucky to have absolutely beautiful and perfect weather on our wedding day (70s, sunny, wonderful), my mother-in-law tells me that the week prior had been cold and damp, and looking very bleak for our planned outdoor ceremony. Michigan weather is a real toss-up, is what I am saying. And this is southeastern Michigan, so we are not talking anywhere near the worst that the state gets.
The problem is not really the cold. You can get used to the cold. The problem is also not the snow. Some years you get a lot and others not much at all. The problem is the way it drags on and on, one month into the next, gray day after gray day. It wears on you. It slowly, but steadily beats down your spirit and your hope, until each morning you wake up and you think, “if spring does not start today, I will spontaneously combust from the white hot burning rage seething through my entire body.” I know from winter blues. I know from seasonal depression. I know what it feels like to wake up on a cold, gray morning in the beginning of May and think, “this is it. I cannot possibly go on living another day like this.” The only thing that can truly end the winter doldrums is the end of winter. But here are some tricks I have learned over the course of many despairing, capricious winters that may help you maintain at least some measure of sanity.
If the sun is out, you should be out too.
Sunny winter days are often the coldest days. Winter is a jerk, so naturally this would be the case. It does not matter. If the sun is out, force yourself outside as well. Put on as many layers as you need to. Pile on the scarves, hats, and gloves. Just keep enough of your face uncovered to feel the sun on your cheeks and against your eyelids. Stand with the sunshine on your face for as long as you can bear the cold. In the winter we do not get enough sunlight, which means we are not producing enough Vitamin D. Vitamin D not only helps us build and maintain healthy teeth and bones, but it also contributes to the production and release of serotonin. Low serotonin levels can lead to depression, sleep disturbance, and changes in appetite and brain functioning. Sunshine boosts Vitamin D, and Vitamin D boosts serotonin. Get out in the sun. Always. No matter what, every day the sun is out, you should be out too.
Stick to your routine.
It is important to try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. You may find that you feel more tired during the winter months. Do not binge on caffeine to get you through the day if you find it throws off your sleep pattern, and it is not a behavior you practice during the rest of the year. It is one thing to shift into hibernation mode where you spend more time indoors and cuddle up on the couch Netflixing to your heart’s content. But try to avoid major shifts in your regular patterns and routines. Go to bed when you normally go to bed. Wake up when you normally wake up. Keep your body moving in the way it is used to year round. Once you start making major changes to your sleep habits (staying up much later at night, remaining in bed for an extra hour or two in the morning because it is too cold to get up and your bed is your new best friend), it becomes harder to regulate your mood, and your appetite.
If you are a person who exercises, keep exercising. If you are person who does not exercise, consider starting.
Exercise releases endorphins and boosts your mood. In winter, we need all the mood boosting we can get. I am a runner. It is very hard to run in the winter, but I force myself to do it (whenever the sun is out!), because I know that I will feel better afterward. Without regular exercise, I am almost unbearable to be around. That is not me being too hard on myself, that is just a fact. I need regular exercise to keep my mood up. I need that boost in energy and blood circulation. I need those endorphins. Winter weather might make it impossible for you to stick to your regular exercise routine, so consider trying some new and different workouts. Buy a jump rope and get your heart rate up. Or skip the jump rope and just stand in the middle of your living room jumping up and down. It does not really matter what you do for exercise, just keep doing something. Or start doing something, and see what difference it makes in your mood, your energy, and your ability to keep up with and engage in the other routine tasks of your day.
Really cannot get on board with exercising? Try having more sex, which also releases endorphins and boosts your overall mood. Are you thinking no way, I am miserable and gross, and I could not feel less attractive if I tried. I have not showered in five days and the only pants I wear are made of fleece and decorated with snowflakes? Get over it. It is winter, we all feel that way. Find another gross, sad person to do it with and you will both be feeling better in no time.
Fake it until you make it.
When I was in college (still in Michigan) our spring break was usually the last week of February. This was great if you were going somewhere warm and fun, and you could escape the misery of the blustery wind, frigid temperatures and the mounds of snow that had turned brown from cars kicking up slush from the roads, and that were covered in a thin layer of slick ice so that every time you walked anywhere you were in a constant state of feeling about ten seconds away from falling flat on your back. Spring break was wonderful if you were not stuck in Michigan, like I always was. One year I spent the first half of my spring break visiting my sister in Chicago, arriving by bus just in time for the start of white-out blizzard conditions that made it almost impossible to find her out on the street waiting for me. I returned home a few days later and spent the rest of my break trudging through the snow to and from work, and returning each evening to a mostly empty house, because nearly all of my roommates were off somewhere not being miserably cold and alone.
To feel better, one day I bought a bottle of margarita mix and spent the evening listening to what I would call Summertime Barbecue Tunes while drinking margaritas and dancing in my bedroom with a sarong tied over my sweatpants. Sure, I looked like a total idiot, but it did not matter: I was all alone and plus it made me feel better. If you cannot be with the weather you love and it feels impossible to love the weather you are with, a little imagination and learning not to give a damn about how you look can go a long way. In need of some distraction and a little social engagement? Invite your friends over for an indoor beach party (minus the sand, please do not bring sand into your house); watch a bunch of summer themed movies; make a pitcher of pina coladas and spend the day on your couch devouring what you would consider a quintessential “beach read.” Do what my sister would do a lot of times in the winter: use a little self tanner so that every time you look at yourself in the mirror, you feel like you have been out in the sun. Are these activities going to fight off your depression and combat the winter blues permanently? No. But they may help you avoid reaching the point where you need to employ my last and final trick for making it through a long winter:
Go out into the night and scream at the top of your lungs toward the heavens, “WHY IS IT STILL SO COLD?”
You might be surprised how many people come out to join you.