How To Beat The Winter Blues Before They Begin

Winter is coming. In much of the country right now, the temperatures are falling and it’s dark by dinner time. And for some this is met with anticipation of what’s to follow: the winter blues. A case of the winter blues can happen when someone withdraws from regular activities and feels unmotivated. If these symptoms last for a longer stretch, it might be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, millions of Americans experience SAD, more so for those living farther north where the days are darker.

While it’s common for energy levels to change with the season, it’s important to keep up your daily routines and motivation. “​​Accepting that you might need more sleep, be more apt for a walk rather than a run, or enjoy journaling and crossword puzzles more than zipping off to a workout class are all reasonable personal accommodations to make in the winter,” said Jen Gessert, an Alaska-based licensed professional counselor and chemical dependency counselor.

However, Gessert warns that this line of thinking can be dangerous because it makes it easy to give yourself excuses to not go out at all. “It’s important to be honest about such allowances to keep it within a healthy threshold,” she says.

The best offense is a good defense. So, what can you do to beat back the winter blues before the season arrives? Here are a few ways to ease into winter and maintain a sense of fun and purpose, no matter what the season may bring.

1. Find Ways To Embrace The Season

Each season brings its own pros and cons. And, yes, winter has its fair share of frustrations — namely, cold, dark weather, there are also plenty of benefits. Before the season fully sets in, figure out how you can make the most of what it brings and find activities to try. Maybe it’s getting into cross-country skiing or going sledding with the kids more often. If you tend to prefer staying indoors, think about getting some friends together for a bi-weekly poker game. Is there a new skill you’ve been thinking about learning? Winter provides more time to get into it. “Try something new and get out around people, and that can really change the way you feel about the winter,” says Gessert.

2. Soak Up The Sun

Our bodies are regulated by sunlight. Without a steady supply, our circadian rhythm can fall out of whack, and our serotonin levels can drop — both of which can lead to sluggishness and depressive symptoms. This is all to say: Make sure you’re getting at least some daily exposure to sunlight. Kelly Rohan, Ph.D., a professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont who does research on adult depression with a specialization on SAD, says the best time to do it is first thing in the morning after sunrise. So prioritize some outside time in the morning.

Even better? Take a brisk walk to get both your sunlight and exercise in at the same time. Bundle up, and the whole family can join. If you aren’t a morning person, taking an outdoor walk during your lunch break might be the perfect opportunity to make the most of the warmest part of the day.

3. Spend Time With Friends

Your level of activity might adjust seasonally, but it’s still important to maintain important friendships in your life and seek new ones out as well.

“As men, we tend to not be as good at maintaining our friendships as women tend to be,” said Matt Ness, a licensed mental health counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist in Iowa. “Societally, it’s a big issue. Men tend to be pretty lonely as a result.”

Fight the trend and prioritize your relationships. Invite a buddy over to join you when watching a game on TV. Meet weekly with some guys for trivia night. Look for an indoor recreation league to participate in together. While it may be difficult to arrange your schedule, it’s worth making the effort. In addition to socialization, you get the bonus effect of having something to look forward to, which is an important ingredient in happiness.

4. Invest In Your Relationships At Home

Winter provides an opportunity to spend your time at home together and reconnect with your spouse. “If we’re going to be more isolated, let’s at least be turning towards each other,” said Ness. “Let’s recognize this as a great opportunity to work on our connection.”

For others, mixing winter blues with extended time at home can cause interpersonal conflict. “If you’re having a hard time, you become more irritable. It’s really easy to end up taking that out on your closest loved one,” said Gessert. “Being mindful of that is super important.”

5. Exercise Regularly

Don’t wait until making New Year’s resolutions to start a fitness routine. Getting into a habit now will not only get a head start on everyone joining the gym in January, but also increase your endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Chances are, you’ll sleep better too.

6. Support Your Sleep Cycle

Remember what we said about longer, darker days affecting our circadian rhythms? Do what you can to keep your sleep consistent. Establish a regular bedtime and wake time and stick with it. If you’re bold enough, Gessert recommends taking a very cold bath or shower earlier in the day, which can help reset your circadian rhythm and promote better sleep. At the end of the day, she suggests using heat in the form of a hot bath or with the sauna at the gym, to ready your body for sleep.

7. Shift Your Thinking

If you have a bad attitude about winter, think about why that is. Cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the treatments recommended for SAD, focuses on understanding your beliefs, distortions, and perceptions and then helps you evaluate how you can change and manage your thought process. Look at what you can control. Is it hard for you to be motivated in the winter? Okay, what can you do about that? “If you just succumb to your beliefs that it’s harder to be motivated during the winter, it will be hard to be motivated in the winter,” says Gessert.

So how do you adjust your mindset? Gessert recommends a simple change in the language you use. Shift your thought process about winter from “always” being hard, to thinking about it as “I have had a hard time in the past, but how can this year be different?”

8. Ask About Light Therapy

Light therapy through an artificial light box for 30-45 minutes in the morning is another form of treatment commonly prescribed for those with SAD and may help with the winter blues as well. However, Rohan cautions that before you go out and buy the first light therapy lamp you find to still check with your doctor. While light therapy can be beneficial if properly used, she says it can also cause side effects such as headaches, eye strain, feeling wired, and even more rare side effects like hypomania or increased suicidal thoughts. A safer alternative? “Outside, you can get as much light, if not more, from Mother Nature that you can from a light box,” said Rohan.

9. Seek Specific Support

If your winter blues are prolonged and feel more like SAD or depression, make an appointment with a professional. Reach out to a licensed counselor or your primary care doctor to ensure you receive the best treatment for you.

“Recognizing the seasonal pattern is the first step, but there are ways to intervene that can change your experience in the wintertime — you just have to be open-minded,” said Rohan, who has been studying SAD for over 30 years. “There is the possibility of coping differently and better.”

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