8 Ways to Deal with Seasonal Depression and "Winter Blues"
Y’all. Winter is coming...and for me at least, that means I can expect some big shifts in my mood. With the sun going away and the ridiculous cold temps that we get up here in Chicago, I can just about guarantee a few months of increased depression and anxiety during the winter. Yay!
I’ve been dealing with winter blues and seasonal depression since I was in high school, and I’ve figured out some of the patterns of health and unhealth that show up during the winter months. I wanted to share what I focus on to keep my mood and energy up!
Just a note before we hop in: lots of us experience a change in mood during the winter, and some of us experience change that’s more severe than others. To my friends who know medication is the best solution for you — power to you. This definitely isn’t to minimize the real, overwhelming chemical changes that happen to some of us but are just what I do to address the mood changes that I know happen in myself. Take what’s helpful for you, leave what’s not—and always talk to your doctor or mental health professional when you’re not feeling like yourself.
Ok, let’s go!
Doing things out of habit is how we live, obviously. So when I know my thoughts and feelings are going to need extra attention throughout the winter, I want to work a few months ahead to make habits that will set me up for success. The rest of the things in this list require intentionality — health doesn’t just happen. So you can catch me chatting with new therapists, working out extra, and journaling regularly to get those healthy practices turned into habits by the time December rolls around. As my dad likes to say (and every dad ever, probs): the best defense is a good offense—aka, the best way to address a crisis is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
This is a new addition to my health list this year! Even just a few cloudy, cold days are enough to erase the memory of happiness and sunshine from my memory — and that can feel hopeless, fast. Intentional, daily gratitude is a great way to adjust my worldview from naturally finding the negative things to noticing all of the blessings I’ve been given. You’re always going to find what you’re looking for. Looking for the good doesn’t mean the bad stuff isn’t there, but it sure helps bring some balance when the winter hopelessness sets in.
So we all know at this point that getting 30 minutes of exercise a day is basically imperative if you want to live a healthy, happy life. Am I killer at this? Not yet. But I’m working on it! I love yoga and finally found some classes at my gym that I love going to. I’m working on building a routine that gets endorphins—literal happiness drugs—pumping through my body.
In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, exercise builds mental toughness. Resisting the temptation that winter brings to fold into my bed all day, to succumb to negativity and sadness, to be just generally afraid of being sad—all of these things can be helped with mental toughness, the confidence that I can do hard things.
For me, in winter, it’s really hard to show up to therapy and do the work. It’s hard to resist the lie that more mac and cheese will solve my sadness. It’s hard to sit through a whole day of work without crying or napping.
Proving to myself physically that yes, I can hold that pose for 2 more breaths or yes, I can run through the chorus of the song builds the mental strength I’m going to need to say yes, I can get through this day even though I just want it to end.
Here is me giving advice I’m still working on taking. (Which is an ok thing to do!! You can know things are healthy and still struggle to do them!) Making sure I’m eating well — keeping my blood sugar stable and getting all my nutrients — is ridiculously helpful in keeping my mood positive and consistent.
I did a quick search to see what nutrients are most helpful for lifting moods, and I found that omega 3s, vitamin D, antioxidants, B vitamins, and zinc are some of the best mood-boosting nutrients out there. All of those are commonly found in eggs, oily fish (like salmon), nuts (in moderation), poultry, beef, dark leafy veggies, and whole grains. So catch me adding handfuls of kale to my meals and snacking on walnuts and frozen blueberries!
The other thing I’m keeping an eye on is my emotional eating. Good thing happened at work? Celebrate with food. Bored? Fill the time with food. Sad? Food. It’s definitely not my best coping mechanism, so I’m trying to find new coping mechanisms while also honoring my honest love for food.
You know how you’re not supposed to go to the grocery store when you’re hungry? I’m also trying not to get to my most emotional (the winter) before I deal with what I regularly eat.
I’m a big fan of therapy. For me, I show up to therapy with a bunch of jumbled thoughts and feelings and my therapist is a pro at unraveling them. Especially during the winter, when my feelings and thoughts feel unpredictable and out-of-the-blue sometimes, I like to have someone on retainer to process openly what I’m dealing with. Sometimes, my therapist helps me figure out where my extra sensitivity is stemming from, sometimes I just need a place to cry that won’t burden my friends and family. Whatever your reason, it can be helpful to at least have a resource on call.
Remember, we don’t want to be trying to find a therapist and tell them our whole life story while we’re in the middle of a crisis. That’s going to feel unhelpful and ineffective, and you might not go back because of it. Find someone now, while you’re healthier and a bit more in control than you might be in a few months.
The biggest reason for seasonal depression is lack of sunshine! Being outside and absorbing all that good vitamin D is imperative to your health. Now there’s not much I can do about the constant clouds from October to May, but my favorite ways to supplement the sun are:
Sit in front of the glow for 15-60 minutes a day for a mood boost. I was skeptical at first, but it genuinely feels like I just drank a cup of coffee or something.
Being in the sun is more effective than taking supplements, but takin something is better than nothing at all. I get mine in the form of gummies, because why the heck not?
Go on vacation
If you can. I have the blessing of having a sister in Palm Beach, so I plan a weekend getaway there once during the winter to recharge in the actual sunshine. I can’t tell you how great I feel, and also gives me something to compare my winter moods to, so I know when I’m getting unnaturally depressed or affected again.
A friend of mine described her depression once as a dimmer switch — I completely resonate. It a tiny change, day after day. A little sadder. A little bit more anxious. Another night in a row needing to stay in. Then, I wake up one morning in January feeling full-on depressed and not realizing how I got there.
I’m determined to not let that happen this year. I know it’s coming, and I’m making an effort to be introspective and self-aware daily: What am I feeling this morning? How sensitive am I today? It’s been 5 days without sun, how is this affecting me? Building a baseline and committing to acknowledging where I am daily I hope will empower me to take action to keep myself well.
Most importantly — the winter will come. I will feel extra sad. I will be extra sensitive. I will snap at people and cry in public and not be okay. And all of that is ok, because spring will come again, too. When I feel negative emotions, I sometimes get upset at myself for having them and pile on more anxiety and shame trying to rid myself of my anxiety and shame (anyone else?!). During these harder months, I want to wrap myself in compassion, grace, and hope — just like I would do for any of my loved ones. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.