Winter Depression: 5 Self-Care Tips for Overcoming Wintertime Sadness

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Winter is a time of year that many people struggle with. If the colder weather and the shorter days are causing serious changes in your mood, you’re not alone: around one in three people are affected by seasonal depression during the fall and winter months.

But what can you do to make this season more joyful for you? Continue reading to learn about the signs of winter depression and get a few tips on how to combat wintertime sadness.

What causes wintertime sadness?

For some people, winter is a dark and gloomy season that takes its toll on their mental health. The signs of seasonal affective disorder are the same as those of major depression and include:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Feeling irritable, stressed, or anxious
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating

People with seasonal affective disorder usually start experiencing these symptoms in fall or winter when the days become shorter and darker and notice them improve in spring and early summer. The severity of the symptoms varies from person to person, and are also affected by genetic factors and where you live. But in general, seasonal affective disorder is particularly common in women and young people.

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While the exact causes of wintertime sadness are unclear, most link it to the lack of daylight in the colder months. The shorter and darker winter days can disrupt your:

  • Circadian rhythms. They play an important role in regulating your sleep, mood, and even appetite. The lack of daylight in winter can throw off your internal clock making you feel tired and moody.
  • Melatonin production. Your brain produces this sleep-inducing hormone when it’s dark. In winter, when the days are shorter, your body may make too much melatonin, which can leave you tired and low on energy.
  • Serotonin production. With the lack of sunlight in winter, the level of this mood-regulating hormone often drops too. This deficit of serotonin can affect your sleep and mood and lead to seasonal depression.

As with any form of depression, the seasonal affective disorder can have many different causes and contributing factors. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor to get a more accurate diagnosis. Milder forms of winter depression can be improved with lifestyle and diet changes that help to boost your mood.

A man with seasonal depression sitting on a bench in a snowy park

Winter depression: Self-assessment tips

Feeling low in winter is often the result of seasonal changes. Bad weather forces you to spend a lot of time indoors, and the lack of sunlight doesn’t help either: short, gloomy days can make anyone feel down and unmotivated

But can it be more than just a case the blues? If any of these following statements apply to you, you may be experiencing winter depression:

  1. I always feel sleepy or can’t fall asleep at night.
  2. I feel exhausted and unable to do daily tasks.
  3. My appetite has changed; I have more cravings for comfort foods.
  4. I’m gaining or losing weight.
  5. I feel sad and down.
  6. I feel hopeless and guilty.
  7. I’m irritable; the smallest things make me feel annoyed.
  8. I’m isolating myself and avoiding social situations.
  9. I’m tense and stressed.
  10. I’ve lost interest in things I enjoy.

Remember that although self-assessment tests can alert you to serious changes and prompt you to take action, they’re not a substitute for a proper diagnosis. It’s important to discuss your symptoms and feelings with a medical professional, regardless of their timing or severity. If your winter depression makes you feel overwhelmed and starts affecting your life, be sure to reach out for help.

How to combat seasonal depression in winter

Although many people see their symptoms of winter depression improve in spring, it doesn’t mean that you just have to wait for the warmer weather. There’re many things you can do during the winter months to help manage your symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. For example, adopting healthier habits and finding time for hobbies and fun activities during your day can make the colder months more enjoyable for you.

Let’s find out what else you can do to beat seasonal depression.

1. Check your vitamin D levels

Vitamin D deficiency is often found in people with seasonal depression. That’s hardly surprising — if you live in a cold climate where there’s less sunlight in winter, you’re more likely to have symptoms of SAD. And since your body needs sunlight to produce vitamin D, shorter winter days mean it can be hard for you to get enough of it naturally.

Make an appointment with your doctor to check your vitamin D levels and see if you need to take supplements and eat more food rich in vitamin D like oily fish.

Although experts aren’t sure whether taking vitamin D supplements alone can relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, it may help improve your mood and support your immune system, which is always a plus.

2. Move more during the day

You may be tired of hearing this, but exercise really can help reduce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. A review that looked into the effects of exercise on depression found that both the psychological and the physiological benefits of exercise make it a powerful tool for those struggling with winter depression. It helps distract you from negative thoughts, boosts endorphin production, helps you relax, and improves your sleep.

That being said, you don’t have to spend hours at the gym in winter to get the mood-boosting effects of exercise. If you don’t have the energy for a full-blown workout when it’s cold outside, just going for a brisk walk or taking the stairs instead of jumping into the elevator can help amp up your activity levels and make you feel more positive.

A woman enjoying the snow in the woods to combat winter depression

3. Make the most out of natural light

People experiencing wintertime sadness should spend more time outside or open the blinds or curtains and sit near the window during the day. According to one study, getting more natural light can help improve your symptoms of winter depression.

During the study, some participants went for an hour's walk, while others used a low-dose artificial light box for 30 minutes per day for one week. Those who went on a daily walk showed significant improvements in their depressive symptoms.

So, whenever possible, go outside during the day — it can help boost your serotonin levels and improve your mood.

4. Find your support group

Sometimes it can be hard to talk about your problems with those closest to you. But having a support system is important for those experiencing seasonal depression.

If you don't feel that you can discuss your feelings with the people around you, joining a support group can help you feel less isolated and lonely.

They offer a safe space for people who are going through similar struggles to share their experiences, which can help you feel better.

Finding a support group that you feel comfortable in may take some time though, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t find the perfect match right away.

5. Reach out to a professional

If winter depression and anxiety start to affect your quality of life despite several lifestyle changes, it may be time for you to consult a mental health professional. They can review your symptoms and recommend treatment options, such as cognitive therapy or certain medication.

Bottom line

Winter depression is common, and it can happen to anyone. While there are many things you can do to manage your symptoms of wintertime sadness like having regular exercise and spending time in natural light, it’s important to discuss your concerns with your doctor. They may check your vitamin D levels and recommend some supplements and medications to help you feel better throughout the colder months.

January 3, 2023