As the days get shorter and the long, dark nights of winter settle in, a lot of people find their mood gets darker, too. Especially after all the fun and festivities of the holidays are over, many people feel tired, irritable, or a bit down. These feelings are so common that there’s even a name for them: the “winter blues.”
Most people only experience a mild version of the winter blues, and can continue living life as normal without too much effort. Others, however, have a more severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Both are caused by sensitivity to the lack of sunlight from the shorter winter days, which disrupts your body clock and messes with hormone levels. This in turn affects your mood and makes you want to sleep more (even if it’s hard to fall asleep at night).
If like most people you don’t have the luxury of just going back to bed for the next three or four months, there are some simple things you can do to lift your mood. However, if things don’t feel like they’re getting better, or you’ve noticed a pattern where you get depressed during certain seasons, go see your doctor. They can help figure out a plan of action to get you back to feeling your best. If you’re 10-22 years old and live in the NYC area, you can come to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center and access confidential health care and mental health services, for free.
1. Lighten up. Your body and your brain are craving more daylight, which makes your body release the feel-good hormone serotonin. Walk outside during the day, even when it’s cold, to get some sun exposure. Sitting closer to windows during the day can also help you get an extra dose of sunshine. Doctors usually recommend that people with SAD use a light box (a special light that simulates daylight) for 30 minutes per day. Using a light box may boost your mood even if you haven’t been diagnosed with SAD, but keep in mind they can be pretty pricey. Everybody, however, can get out during the daytime, even for just a few minutes. You may feel your worst in the morning, but make an effort to open up the curtains and soak in the morning rays. Remember: hibernation is for bears, not you!
2. Eat to improve your mood. Certain foods such as chocolate have been shown to improve moods and help relieve anxiety. Candy and carbohydrates, like cookies or white bread, on the other hand, feel good when you’re eating them, but make you feel worse later when your blood sugar crashes. Little comforts that don’t lay on the carbs, like a cup of tea or small piece of dark chocolate, can help you relax without sabotaging yourself later. It’s also important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which can leave you feeling more optimistic in the long run. Make a pot of vegetable soup or chili to get the cozy feel of a cup of hot chocolate without the sugar crash.
3. Get moving. More and more research suggests that exercise is a great way to help deal with (and maybe even prevent) depression. Exercise as simple as walking for 30 (or even 10!) minutes can have a significant impact on your mood. Bundle up and go for a walk, play basketball with friends indoors at a community center or gym, or dance around your living room. Staying active helps stop winter weight gain, too.
4. Listen to an upbeat playlist. Research in 2013 from the University of Missouri suggested that listening to cheerful music can improve your mood, even after the song ends. So put away the ballads for the winter, and listen to something with a good beat that you can dance to!
5. Help others. Volunteering your time to help someone else can improve mental health and how satisfied you feel with your life. Help out a local organization. Clean out your closet and donate the clothes you’ve grown out of. Put in some extra effort around the house to help out your family. Do something nice for a friend. The possibilities are endless!
6. Stay social. You may feel inclined to spend more time alone, but spending time with friends and loved ones can have a serious impact on your mood. If you begin flaking on your friends more during the fall and winter, ask someone to encourage you to keep those commitments.
7. Relax. Being mindful, doing deep breathing exercises, and meditating can all have a significant impact on how you feel. Try taking several deep, slow breaths, filling your belly as you inhale and letting it deflate as you exhale. Concentrate on nothing but your breathing.
8. Be kind to yourself. We’ve given you a lot of tips on how to deal with feeling down. But when you’re depressed, it can be really hard to find the motivation to actually do these things. If you skip a workout, stay in all day, or listen to your favorite sad song on repeat, don’t get mad at yourself. Instead, think about what you’d say to a good friend going through something similar.
These small changes can lighten your mood and help you get through the winter blues.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.