If you’re starting to feel glum, listless and irritable this time of year, you’re not alone. The days are shorter, holiday bills are piling up and the winter blues are in full swing.
According to Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and co-host of the radio show “The Web,” the winter blues are generally characterized by a lack of energy and feelings of irritability, sadness and apathy.
Dr. Marc Leavey, a primary care internist at Mercy Medical Center in New York, says that “some [people] are just more sensitive to the seasonal changes that trigger the winter blues,” like colder temperatures and fewer daylight hours. Klapow says the blues can also surface due to lack of activity, changes in your diet or exercise routine, holiday stress, financial concerns, sudden loss or family issues.
It’s important, however, not to confuse the winter blues with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Klapow said the winter blues are less severe and more time-limited than SAD, symptoms of which may include sadness, irritability, disrupted sleeping, changes in appetite, hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in enjoyable activities and suicidal ideation.
“This medical condition, while it may be triggered by the same environmental conditions that lead to the winter blues, is much more serious, and deserves professional attention,” Leavey said.
If you feel down, hopeless or blue this winter, Leavey says it’s best to consult a medical or mental health professional before self-diagnosing. “Check with your physician [to] be sure that it is only the blues and not a significant depression,” he said.
If you confirm that you’re not dealing with SAD, but just a bout of the winter blues, there are some easy ways to turn that mood around. Try these expert-backed strategies to get back to feeling better:
1. Expose yourself to natural light every day
The winter blues may put you in the mood for good old-fashioned couch hibernation, but Leavey said it’s crucial to get outside and soak up some natural light, however weak it may be.
Natural sunlight “helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycles, which can be thrown off during times where there is less daylight,” Kaplow said. That light can help facilitate the production of serotonin in the body, which in turn can help elevate your mood, he explained.
Make a point to spend at least 20 minutes outside every day, even if the weather is foul. Walk to work in the morning, eat lunch in the outdoor courtyard or use your coffee break to stroll a few blocks to a cafe.
2. Prioritize sleep
Sleep deprivation and disrupted sleep patterns are linked to feelings of depression, Klapow said, which is why he recommends logging seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night — no excuses.
“The restorative nature of sleep and a regular sleep cycle helps to stabilize your mood,” he explained.
3. Move every day for at least 15 minutes
It’s easy to skip the gym during the winter months, but Klapow said exercising can have incredible outlook-enhancing and energizing effects. Preliminary research backs this up: A study from the journal Pain Medicine found that even 10 minutes of exercise can help improve your mood and reduce feelings of anxiety.
If you can’t schedule an hour-long sweat session, carve out 15 minutes for push-ups and jumping jacks before your morning shower, a quick HIIT routine during your lunch break, a brisk afternoon walk or an evening yoga flow.
4. Brighten your bedroom and office
Adjusting your immediate surroundings can help balance your emotions and alleviate the winter blues, Leavey said. If you find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, try adding a source of naturalistic artificial light to your bedroom. A dawn simulator, for example, works on a timer to gradually brighten your bedroom and has been shown to reduce feelings of seasonal depression.
Next, revamp your workspace. If you can, move your desk closer to the window so you’re exposed to more natural light. If that’s not possible, install a sunlamp to brighten your dim office cubicle — it’ll recreate the feeling of natural light and combat harsh fluorescent bulbs. Another tip is to bring some fresh greenery to your space: Research suggests that proximity to indoor plants may help lessen psychological and physiological stress.
5. Examine your daily diet
“The type of food you eat impacts your energy levels, sleep and immune functioning,” Klapow said.
Pastries for breakfast or a stop at your favorite fast-food joint may bring you instant comfort, but regularly consuming these items can worsen your physical health — and may even have negative long-term effects on your mental health. Research shows that fast-food consumption is linked to a higher risk of depression, as are alcohol consumption and sugar from sodas and desserts.
That doesn’t mean you need to completely abandon your favorite treats this winter, though. Make small changes by trying to cut back on processed items, swap your soda for water, limit your alcohol consumption and incorporate whole grains and veggies at every meal.
6. Spend time with friends and loved ones
“Emotional light” ― that is, connecting with other people ― is just as critical as environmental light when it comes to eliminating the winter blues, Leavey said. “Plan activities, be with people [and] try not to sit at home alone and curse the darkness.”
Klapow underscored this point, noting that social interaction can serve as a buffer against depression-like symptoms, since being around others helps keep your mind and emotions engaged.
That doesn’t mean you need to make lunch plans every day, hit up all the holiday parties or host a weekly game night if you’re not up to it, though. Social connection of any kind is valuable and helpful, Klapow says, so do what feels comfortable for you.
7. Cut yourself some slack
When you’re struggling with the winter blues, you might feel energized one day and super low the next. This is normal. Shaming yourself for how you feel is only going to make you feel worse.
“Give yourself permission to have both good days and bad days during the [winter] season,” Klapow said.