Winter Blues: Doctors Explain How to Fight Seasonal Depression

Fact checked by Megan Soliman MD, MSc
Board-certified physician at Saba University School of Medicine

As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, you may feel moodier than usual. If you think that winter is affecting your mood and getting you down, you are not alone. Many people tend to feel more tired, have trouble concentrating, and experience mood swings when the weather changes.

Continue reading to find out how to beat the winter blues and stop it from affecting your mood.

What are the winter blues?

Everyone feels sad sometimes: having different emotions is an integral part of human life. But if you feel particularly lethargic and down in winter, it may be the case of the winter blues.

The winter blues is a mental state that affects people during the coldest and darkest time of the year. The most common symptoms of the winter blues are:

  • Feeling sad during winter
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness
  • Lack of motivation

Winter blues are often caused by a lack of sunlight. Our vitamin D stores can be depleted in the winter, and if you leave and return home in the dark, it’s natural to feel gloomy.

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Although the winter blues is temporary, it can still affect your day-to-day life and lower your productivity at work. You may find it hard to get out of bed in the morning sometimes or concentrate on the task at hand. But if your feelings of sadness and lack of motivation stop you from enjoying your life, it can be a sign of a more serious seasonal depression.

Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder: Is there a difference?

A mood change during the colder months is not uncommon. While you may feel more tired due to the winter blues and lack motivation for certain things, it generally doesn’t stop you from doing important things like going to work or caring for children. But if you feel more withdrawn and notice your winter blues cause problems at work or in your personal life, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

A woman under a duvet experiencing symptoms of winter blues

SAD is a type of depression that affects people during a particular season. It is more common during the fall and winter, but you can experience it in spring or summer too. Look out for these symptoms of seasonal affective disorder:

  • Intense feelings of sadness and unhappiness
  • Feeling depressed almost every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy
  • Frequent sleep problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Low energy
  • Changes in your appetite or weight

The main difference between the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder is the severity of feelings of unhappiness. SAD is more complex, it can have a much more serious effect on your ability to function in your daily life.

People with the seasonal affective disorder often show signs of depression.

They may find it difficult to enjoy life and can start to isolate themselves. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or someone close to you, reach out to a mental health professional. It’s crucial to take timely action to fight this seasonal depression before it becomes more severe.

How can you find out if you have winter blues?

If you are usually a cheerful and active person but come winter, you start feeling low and lethargic, you may have the winter blues.

If you suspect the winter blues or think you may be experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression, it is vital to talk to your healthcare provider. They may run some tests to find out if you have any nutrient deficiency — for example, lack of iron can make you feel tired and weak — or other underlying conditions that may affect your mood. After ruling out any physical problems, they may ask some questions to determine if you’re dealing with the winter blues or SAD. In this case, your doctor may recommend you speak to a mental health specialist to discuss your treatment options.

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How to fight seasonal depression

Many people experience a mood shift when the weather changes, but you can overcome the winter blues with some lifestyle changes. The sooner you start taking action, the better — you can prevent your low winter mood from turning into a full-blown seasonal depression.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle

It can be hard to resist the urge to turn to comfort foods when you feel low. But excess sugar and starchy carbs can make you feel even more sluggish. Opt for a balanced diet of lean proteins, whole grains, and colorful fruits and vegetables to get a boost of energy and elevate your mood.

Exercise is another way to get out of the winter funk.

It has been shown to boost mood, lower stress, and improve the symptoms of depression. You can do 30 minutes of yoga or a couple of laps in the pool — choose any type of exercise you enjoy, but make it a habit. Having a set routine can also stop you from feeling overwhelmed and help you concentrate and be more productive during the day.

Keep a consistent sleep schedule

Sleep has a huge impact on your mood. A good night’s sleep can make you feel energized and on top of the world. Lack of daylight in winter can disrupt your circadian rhythm and affect your sleep. Try following these steps to improve your sleep quality:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Turn the lights on and open the curtains immediately after waking up.
  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
  • Avoid screens at least an hour before going to bed.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine — take a bath or a hot shower, dim the lights, try meditating, or drink a cup of herbal tea.

Spend time outside

You may be tempted to stay in your warm and cozy home when it’s cold outside. But the fresh air and some vitamin D can help lift your spirits, so try to spend some time outside, especially when the sun is out.

A woman walking outside in winter to fight seasonal depression

If you can’t go outside during the day, move your work desk closer to the window to soak up the daylight and make sure to open the window to let some fresh air in. But still try to get outside whenever you can, even for a few minutes. A short evening walk can help you clear your mind and improve your sleep.

Try light therapy

Since shorter days and a lack of sunlight are the main triggers for the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder, your doctor may recommend light therapy to help improve your symptoms. A 2019 research has found that it can be effective in treating depression and mood disorders. It can also be useful for sleeping problems as it’s meant to make up for the missing hours of daylight in winter and fall and regulate circadian rhythms.

In light therapy, you sit in front of a light box for 30 minutes (or more, depending on your doctor’s recommendations). Full-spectrum fluorescent light is used — it’s much brighter than regular indoor light bulbs, so just turning the lights on in your home is not enough.

Discuss light therapy with your healthcare provider if you’re interested in this treatment option for your winter blues.

Seek professional help

If your mood is not improving with lifestyle changes and nothing you do seems to make you feel less sad in winter, you may be dealing with seasonal depression. When not treated, it can have a significant impact on your daily life, so consider speaking to a mental health professional. They may help identify if you are going through something other than the winter blues and recommend counseling or specific medication for mood disorders.

Final thoughts

Feeling sad and unmotivated when it’s dark and cold outside is not uncommon. As the days get shorter, many people start experiencing the symptoms of the winter blues. Usually, a consistent sleep schedule, regular exercise, and a healthy, balanced diet can help you feel more energetic and lift your mood.

But it’s important to recognize when the winter blues has turned into a more serious mood disorder. Losing interest in the things you usually enjoy, having trouble eating and sleeping, and being unable to get out of bed on most days can be signs of depression. Reach out for help if your feelings of sadness and lack of energy are affecting your day-to-day life.

September 5, 2022