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Feeling less energized and motivated during colder months of the year isn’t unusual. Compared to warmer months, you’re likely spending less time outside, getting less exposure to sunlight, and therefore producing less Vitamin D, which has been associated with an increased risk of mood and other mental health difficulties. Chances are, you’re also less physically active (another potential gut punch to your mental health). Since you and your friends aren't as apt to make plans given the weather, you may also be less social than you typically are in the spring and summer. This can drag your mood down even further. Plus, the earlier it gets dark, the more of your waking hours you risk feeling fatigued.
For some people--an estimated 1.4 to 9.7 percent of Americans, depending on their geographic location—the low mood, low energy, and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed during winter months become so severe that they struggle to function at work, in relationships, or with basic activities of daily living (think: eating, showering, cooking, commuting, and cleaning). These individuals meet the criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). People who struggle with mood disorders, women, and those who do shift work are at higher risk of S.A.D. Older research suggests that people residing in more Northern latitudes are also at higher risk.
Whether you're struggling with a relatively mild case of the winter blues or the more severe symptoms of S.A.D., there are ways to manage what those colder, darker days and weeks can do to you. Here are some tips to maintain your well-being no matter how unpleasant the weather may be.
Create a Home Exercise RoutineIf it’s accessible to you, develop a home workout routine that raises your heart rate for at least 10 minutes most days of the week. This period of time has been found across several studies to confer mood-improving effects. You might consider tuning into a live online exercise class, a streamable workout session, or just crank your favorite tunes and dance until you start sweating. Walking up and down a set of stairs in your home or apartment and intense cleaning also count as exercise. You might also consider buying an at-home exercise machine (refurbished ones can be just as good as new, and a lot cheaper) and hopping onto it while you binge-watch a favorite show on a smartphone or tablet.
Invest in a Light BoxOne of the standard treatments for S.A.D. is exposure to bright light shortly after waking. Many therapeutic light boxes used for this purpose are available online without a prescription. Look for one that’s at least 10,000 lux—the level of light found to have a positive effect on mood and energy levels in folks suffering from S.A.D. Aim to position yourself in front of it for about 30 minutes each morning. Each device will have its own recommendations for how far or near you're supposed to sit or stand near it—or do one of your new home workout routines facing it—but typically the range is 12 to 24 inches from your face and body, and it's supposed to be angled 30 degrees upward. Note: Just as you wouldn't stare directly into the sun, do not stare directly into the light box.
If 10,000 lux is just too bright for your liking, light boxes calibrated to 2,500 lux have also been shown to improve mood. However, studies suggest you'll need to be exposed to these less intense alternatives for one to two hours (rather than just 30 minutes) to experience the same mood-enhancing effects as higher-intensity light boxes.
One cautionary consideration before you invest: If you've ever experienced a hypomanic or manic episode, hold off and speak with a mental health professional before exposing yourself to any bright lights for extended time periods. Though light therapy has been found to improve symptoms of bipolar disorders, it carries a risk of eliciting manic or hypomanic episodes in some cases.
Winter-fy Your WardrobePart of why we feel more down in the winter is that it can feel like so much effort just to get outside. We’re less inclined to leave our homes as a result. Then, when we're out of the house, we’re uncomfortable because of the cold. You can combat both of these problems by investing in some seriously comfy and warm winter gear—snow-proof boots, a well-insulated jacket, insulated pants, and a decent pair of water-resistant gloves. This can make a world of difference in your ability to participate in activities outside where you live and work—not to mention your enjoyment of the outdoors when you're exposed to it.
The more outdoor time you can get, in fact, the better able you’ll be to combat the winter blues. In winter months the sun's rays are less powerful. Plus, less of your skin is bared to absorb those rays. Some studies suggest that a minimum of two hours outside each day is needed for the winter sun to trigger the same level of Vitamin D production that a 30-minute stint in the summer sun can affect. But don't stress too much about making that goal every day. Every little bit counts. And feeling more comfortable in the cold goes a long way toward helping you feel a little bit happier despite inclement outdoor conditions.
Make More Plans Than You Want ToScheduling regular social activities is an absolute must during colder months. For many people, especially older adults, social isolation increases significantly during winter. Because you're probably less inclined to make social plans (due to feeling tired, not wanting to bear the brunt of the cold, or dreading the thought of wearing multiple layers), it may feel arduous at times. The last thing you may want to do is get out of your comfy sweatpants and commute to a mutually convenient meeting point. But for the good of your mental health, aim to see someone whose company you enjoy at least once a week, and try to connect via video or voice calls on other days.
Go GreenerThough the trees outside may be bare, that doesn’t mean your home or office has to follow suit. Proximity to plants has been found across many studies to help us relax, reduce stress, promote healing, improve our moods and also give our immune systems an extra boost (which is helpful for winter colds and flu). Plant soil has been found to release a specific mycobacterium that positively influences our moods, possibly by stimulating metabolism, immunity, and serotonin production. Outfit your living and working space with greenery to take the edge off that literal and emotional iciness winter weather can bring about. Consider these oxygen-boosting house plants or this list of foliage that can survive in darker rooms.
The TakeawayThese are some helpful ways to mitigate the negative impacts of cold, dark seasons on our mood and mental health. They're not, however, a cure-all. If you find yourself significantly struggling to feel okay as fall turns to winter, reach out to a mental health professional for support and guidance. In some cases, medications may be recommended and in others, targeted psychotherapies such as CBT-SAD may be best.
Why You’re Sadder During Cold Months, and What to Do About It | Psychology Today
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.