It's S.A.D Season: How To Cope With Winter Blues

Every year, November arrives and brings with it so many mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it's during November that we begin to see the world adorned in cheerful lights. On the other, it's dark at literally 5 PM (who approved this, I want a word with them??) And although we can finally get cozy with a blanket and some hot chocolate, it's SO difficult to get out of bed on chilly winter mornings.

This month also marks the beginning of the holiday season. The holidays are a joyful time for some. However, they also bring their own share of anxiety, pain, and loneliness. Overall, it seems like there is always a flip side to November, and winter in general.

Cue The Blues

All of this combines with the fact that for many of us, our moods cycle with the sun. On cloudy, gloomy days, we feel quite low. And the one thing that is almost guaranteed to give us a boost of energy is seeing some sunlight ☀️  The reality that we see significantly less sun for 5 months of the year (if you are in Southern Ontario like us), can be overwhelming to accept.

So, while November usually signals the start of seasonal mood shifts (aka the winter blues), we and so many others are right there with you. If you are struggling to adjust to one less hour of daylight or dreading the start of winter, read on.

This post will discuss:

What is seasonal sadness and how do we know when it is Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D)?

What are the known causes of seasonal sadness or S.A.D?

How to cope with mood shifts in the winter months

What Are The Winter Blues?

Winter blues, winter blahs. 

As the season shifts to winter, it is common for people to start experiencing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of motivation that are difficult to shake.

We’ve learned to call this the ‘winter blues’, but it’s important not to minimize the experience! It’s common, but not necessarily easy to cope with. 

Some studies have shown that young women tend to experience seasonal shifts in mood more regularly than other groups, however it can happen to anyone at any age. 

Is There A Difference Between Winter Blues And Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Yes, there is! It's important to monitor the severity and persistence of symptoms, as well as how they are affecting with your ability to function well with daily tasks.

As with most mental health concerns, increasing difficulty in these areas is cause for further investigation.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D and also known as seasonal depression) can be characterized by the list of signs and symptoms below (source: CAMH). These symptoms tend to cluster around the months of November, December, January, February, and March and occur most frequently in countries that are far from the equator (i.e. countries where the days get shorter during winter).

Note: the signs and symptoms look the same as year-round depression. Seasonal depression is marked by these symptoms coming and going around the same time each year, usually coinciding winter months. 

The major symptom is a sad, despairing mood that:

Is present most days and lasts most of the day

Lasts for more than two weeks

Impairs the person’s performance at work, at school or in social relationships.

Other symptoms of depression include:

Changes in appetite and weight

Sleep problems

Loss of interest in work, hobbies, people or sex

Withdrawal from family members and friends

Feeling useless, hopeless, excessively guilty, pessimistic or having low self-esteem

Agitation or feeling slowed down

Irritability

Fatigue

Trouble concentrating, remembering and making decisions

Crying easily or feeling like crying but not being able to

Thoughts of suicide (which should always be taken seriously)

A loss of touch with reality, hearing voices (hallucinations) or having strange ideas (delusions)

It's normal to begin dreading the start of winter because of these symptoms. It's also very common to experience all of this, and not link it to the onset of winter.

Why Does It Happen?

The truth is, there is no confirmed cause for why we experience the winter blues or more intense forms of seasonal depression. However, researchers have focused on a few likely suspects.

The Phase-Shift Hypothesis

This one has to do with the misalignment, or phase-shifts of our sleep/wake cycle.

Our bodies have a natural circadian rhythm- the morning light is our natural alarm clock and as the sun goes down, our bodies settle into rest mode.

How does this work? In the morning, the light from the windows sets off a chain of events. The end result of this is the inhibition (or prevention) of our body from secreting the hormone melatonin, which it responsible for helping our bodies to sleep.

In the winter months, the light cues to stop melatonin release are less strong. We often wake up when it's still pitch dark outside. This causes our circadian rhythm to become misaligned, tricking our body into thinking it's still night time. This explains the dip in energy and motivation and constant tiredness some of us experience in the winter.

Chemical And Hormonal Shifts

Changes in the amount of sunlight we receive may also disrupt the way chemicals in our brain (neurotransmitters) are produced and how they function. In particular, serotonin and dopamine levels are affected. These neurotransmitters have key roles in regulating our moods!

Studies have shown that people with S.A.D may have trouble regulating serotonin, which has a crucial role in helping us balance moods.

Furthermore, those of us affected by S.A.D may also produce too much melatonin during the winter months, resulting in sleepiness and lethargy. Feeling tired and unmotivated for an extended period of time increases vulnerability to depression.

How To Cope With Seasonal Mood Shifts

So many of us experience low moods in the winter and chalk it up to holiday anxiety or feeling dissatisfied with how the year went overall. These are all valid reasons why we might be sad in the winter.

However, it's important not to minimize the feelings, especially if they are severe enough to affect your ability to function every day.

This list is by no means a replacement for professional help if you are experiencing severe and persistent S.A.D. Please talk to a doctor or your therapist if you are struggling these feelings and cannot cope with them!

If your feelings of sadness are not severe and you are able to make some changes to help you cope with them, please read on! We also advise speaking to your doctor before trying anything that may affect your health and wellbeing.

Light Therapy

In many ways, this is the gold standard for treating S.A.D and what many professionals recommend. Exposing ourselves to light that mimics natural daylight can help 'trick' our bodies into re-setting a misaligned circadian rhythm.

It's important to speak to your doctor before trying this one! They might even 'prescribe' a certain amount of light exposure and duration for you.

Work Near A Window

We need all the light we can get! Working or simply lounging near windows can help us take advantage of the daylight hours we do have.

Try re-arranging your most lived-in room so you are closer to windows. If there is furniture blocking a window, move it somewhere else- we need this light! Re-arranging your settings may also help shake off those winter blahs and give you something to do.

Spend Time Outside (Even When It's Cloudy)

Going outside when you feeling down and unmotivated may be the very last thing you want to do. Start slow and and step out a few days a week and especially on milder days.

Spending all our time indoors greatly increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. Try keeping everything you need to go outside nearby and easily accessible!

See Your Loved Ones (Safely)

One of the hallmarks of seasonal depression is we tend to withdraw and feel irritable and annoyed with the people in our lives. Ever sit in a room by yourself, run through scenarios, and end up hurting your own feelings? We end up living in our heads more and more when we do not feel connected to people.

If you are up for it, schedule chats and safe meetings with loved ones every week. It's not always going to be easy or helpful, but you will almost always feel slightly better.

Talk About It

So many of us don't recognize seasonal depression for what it is. It's possible to normalize something too much, to the point that we do not consider our suffering to be worthy of action because 'it happens'.

Talking to people in our lives about how low we feel during the winter is important! It helps us feel less alone, because someone very near and dear to you is almost certainly going through it too.

Schedule Uplifting Activities

It's tempting, but we don't have to hibernate all winter until the sadness goes away. Every week (or couple of weeks) schedule something to look forward to. Seasonal depression can make it feel like time is moving too slowly. The months stretch on, and we feel more hopeless.

Joyful and uplifting activities are little anchors in these long months. So here's your reminder: if you see a forecast for snow, make sure you go out and mess up a perfect blanket of snow! It's the kind of joy only possible in the winter and we HIGHLY recommend it.

Wrapping Up

Seasonal mood shifts are a side effect of living in a part of the world that experiences all four seasons so intensely.

Please take care of yourselves and each other during this winter. Combined with the anxiety of the pandemic, it may be a particularly tough one. So, love each other dearly, check in on those who you sense are struggling, and connect in all the ways that are safe and possible.

We've got this, WellNest family.

I want to hear from you: How do you cope with these winter blues?

That’s all for me! If you have any questions about this topic, feel free to send me an email. Or book an appointment with anyone from WellNest’s awesome team! You can also book a free phone consult at anytime.

Until next time!

Hala

Mental Health Content Specialist

WellNest Psychotherapy Services

Hala Shamsi is a Social Worker and Mental Health Content Specialist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. She is always deep in the middle of an internet spiral to bring you fresh insights into the world of mental wellness.

Is there a topic you want to see covered in this blog? Feel free to reach out at the email above to let her know!