Beating the winter blues

How to fend off winter blues

18 November 2019

Dear Maddi,

How can I stop the "winter blues" from ruining my fall and winter?

Sincerely, Blue

Dear Blue,

Many of us notice a decline in mood and energy during the winter months. For some people, the change may be subtle, and for others, it can be quite noticeable. Signs may include the following: feeling a slump in mood, lower energy, wishing to stay in bed longer in the morning, irritability with snow and cold, and a longing for the warm, light days of spring. If you are feeling this way, here are some options to help!

  1. Let there be light.Insufficient light is suspected to cause the winter blues.The days are shorter, and the cold weather makes it less appealing to go outside, even on the sunny days.But light is your friend!Make an effort to be outdoors during the brightest times of the day.Consider bundling up and going for a brisk walk on days when there actually is some sunshine.Light enters your body through your eyes, so you might decide to forgo the sunglasses.You can also look into light therapy boxes.They emit a special form of bright light that mimics sunlight, and you typically sit in front of them for 20-30 minutes in the morning.This can help regulate your sleep/wake cycles, increase your energy and perk up your mood.

  2. Move your body.Exercise releases endorphins and can help lift your mood.Exercise inside if it's too cold to go out!If the gym is not your thing, you can still get some light to moderate exercise by doing a brisk walk on an indoor walking track or even running up a couple flights of stairs once or twice per day.Every little bit counts - even 10 minutes of daily physical activity can help boost your energy levels and improve your state of mind.

  3. Fuel up. The cold winter months can bring cravings for sugar and starch.Occasional sweet treats are a great part of winter!However, don't forget to get in those servings of fruit, veggies and protein.Also avoid skipping meals and snacks, which can lower energy.A balanced diet will ensure your energy levels are replenished.Also don't forget water!Staying hydrated is important. When cold water doesn't appeal, consider sipping on some herbal tea.

  4. Don't forget the fun.Part of what makes summer great is that it's a fun time to socialize.Winter doesn't mean the action has to stop!Try going to some of the winter festivals around the city.Skating, skiing, snow-shoeing, tobogganing and other winter sports are a great way to have something to look forward to on cold days.Try replacing your summer patio time with winter coffee-shop dates.Remember to invest in a good coat and proper boots so that you have no excuse to stay home!

  5. Cozy up by exploring Hygge.Hygge (pronounced "hoo-guh") is a Danish word that refers to coziness which brings about feelings of contentment, gratitude and well-being.You can create the feeling of hygge by taking pleasure in soothing, simple and comforting things, such as warm socks, playing board games, and yes, even snuggling up in a warm blanket and watching Netflix.Try lighting a few candles and making a hot chocolate or cinnamon cider drink.You can also reach out to friends and loved ones by enjoying Hygge with others.Whether you host a pajama movie night, a fondue dinner or a simple meal of soup and biscuits, you will enjoy the feeling of shutting out the cold and savoring feelings of warmth and comfort.

Starting small is the key. Don't feel you have to do everything at once, but push yourself to make the effort even when you may not feel like it. Those first steps can help build momentum and help you feel better.

For some individuals, a mood drop in winter goes beyond feeling a bit down. These individuals feel symptoms of full-blown depression, which can show up in late fall or mid-winter, and last until early spring. Recurrent seasonal depression is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, and symptoms include feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day, oversleeping (potentially to the point where you are missing classes), increased cravings for sweet and starchy foods with resulting weight gain, and loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed. Seasonal Affective Disorder can also be accompanied by thoughts of suicide. Please note that although SAD may only occur over the darker months of the year, it is a very real and painful form of depression, which can become life-threatening in severe cases. If you suspect you may be suffering from something more than minor winter blues, make an appointment with your doctor. You may wish to bring a list of the changes in yourself you have noticed recently. Your doctor can assess whether there could be a physical cause for the lowered mood (such as low iron, a thyroid imbalance or a vitamin deficiency) and they may also speak to you about potential interventions, such as light therapy, medication and/or counselling.

Best wishes to you as you work to stay happy, healthy and warm this winter!

Written by Becky Ponting, University of Alberta Counselling and Clinical Services Psychologist.

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