Beating the Winter Blues

Beating the Winter Blues

01/15/21 Laura Gibbons

As winter sets in, we see shorter days, less sunshine, and often changes in our physical activities. As a result, we may start feeling the effects.

We may notice feeling down, unmotivated, low energy, lack of interest, and changes in our mood. We may find ourselves sleeping more and eating more comfort food, specifically carbohydrates. January and February are peak months to feel these symptoms and can also include the “let down” after the holiday season.

So Why Does Winter Bring the Blues?
Sunlight affects the chemicals in our brain. When we receive a lack of sunlight, it can alter one’s circadian rhythm (body’s internal clock) which regulates normal sleep-wake cycles. A healthy sleep routine is essential to our mental health and overall well-being.

Melatonin, our body’s natural sleep hormone, helps us feel tired and ready for bed when it gets dark. When it gets darker earlier in the winter months, people may produce higher levels of melatonin which may cause them to sleep too much and experience changes in mood.

Just as sunlight affects our melatonin levels, it can also cause serotonin levels to drop. Serotonin is known as the feel good hormone which plays an important role in regulating mood. If serotonin levels drop, one may feel less happy, moody, and less satisfied.

In addition to the above changes, one may become deficient in vitamin D which is an essential nutrient that is created when exposed to the sun’s UV rays. When we don’t get enough vitamin D, we can feel tired and lethargic.

With all these internal changes that occur due to lack of sunlight, we can feel more anxious or blue.

What Can You Do to Manage the Blues?

Catch the sun. Even though the winter brings darker days, it makes it even more important to get outside when the sun peaks through. And so take advantage of those sunny days and soak up the sun’s natural light which helps regulate the chemicals that affect your mood.

Make your environment light and bright. Open blinds, sit or work closer to bright windows, and ensure there is adequate light when indoors. Wear bright colors and surround yourself with pictures and items that make you feel sunny.

Get outside. Don’t let gloomy days prevent you from getting outside and getting fresh air. Embrace the winter like those who live north. Bundle up and take a walk, sit or work outside, and have some fun by doing winter activities like playing in the snow, sledding, skiing, ice-skating, etc. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can still be beneficial.

Light therapy. Light therapy has been prescribed for individuals who have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is more serious than the winter blues. Light therapy uses a light box to mimic natural outdoor light to help regulate the release of melatonin as you sit or work near the light box. Work with a health care professional to determine the proper combination of light intensity, duration, and timing.

Dawn simulator. A dawn simulator is basically an alarm clock that works by gently waking you up with light rather than sound. It will mimic a natural sunrise by starting with a very low light that gradually brightens over 30 to 45 minutes.

Take a vitamin D supplement. Unless you live in a state where the sun shines all year long to get your dose of vitamin D, taking a vitamin D supplement could help boost your mood during the winter months. Talk to your doctor to discuss the appropriate dosage needed.

Exercise regularly. Exercise is known to release endorphins and increase serotonin – feel good chemicals – which can help combat stress and anxiety. Feeling more fit and healthy can make you feel better about yourself, which can lift your mood. Moderate exercise of at least 30 minutes most days of the week may provide the biggest mood boost. If you haven’t exercised or having trouble getting motivated, start slow and build as you go. It is important to just start moving.

Eat healthy. If you are feeling the winter blues, you may find yourself craving more sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed food. It is important that we don’t let the winter blues keep us from getting the nutritious foods that we need like proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. They say that we are what we eat and what we consume can take a toll on our mood, focus, and motivation if we don’t maintain a healthy diet.

Get adequate sleep. The shorter days can make us feel more tired. Try to start a healthy sleep routine by keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule. Eliminate distractions like scrolling social media, tv and streaming, games, and other activities that prevent us from winding down and relaxing. Instead, read a book, meditate, journal, or find another more relaxing activity that helps you maintain a healthy sleep routine.

Focus on a hobby or purposeful activity. Although the winter may make us feel cooped up, it can also provide an opportunity to focus on activities that we may have been putting off. Practicing mindfulness, gratitude, or diving into a new hobby or activity can give us the boost we need. Purposeful activities can help us feel more present, joy, appreciation, and accomplishment.

Most people experiencing the winter blues will notice some changes in mood, energy, and motivation. But if you are experiencing more severe symptoms such as feeling down or depressed most of the day, every day, isolating yourself, struggling to focus and perform duties at work or home, constantly fatigued, problems in your relationships, or feeling hopeless, than it may be more than the winter blues. Whether it is the winter blues or seasonal affect disorder, contact your EAP or other healthcare professional to get help.

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