"Winter depression" typically manifests, as the name implies, during winter months. The symptoms usually begin in late autumn and become more severe as winter sets in. Also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), winter depression usually improves and sometimes disappears altogether in the spring and summer. For many people, it starts over again every fall.
While the exact cause is not known, a lowered exposure to sunlight during shorter days of autumn and winter can contribute to it. Less exposure to sunlight decreases the ability of the hypothalamus to function correctly, thereby affecting the levels of serotonin and melatonin as well as the circadian rhythm -- three critical elements in keeping depression at bay.
Symptoms of winter depression
The nature and severity of symptoms differ from person to person. Some people may find the condition irritating; for others it can have a significant impact on their day-to-day lives.
The following are some of the most common symptoms of winter depression:
- A persistent low mood starting in autumn or early winter onward
- Loss of pleasure or interest in routine activities and hobbies
- Feelings of despair, neglect, guilt, and irritability
- Low self-esteem
- Having crying fits on a regular basis
- Feeling stressed-out or anxious
- Low sex drive
- A decreased tendency to mingle with others
- Feelings of loneliness
Some people experience the symptoms in phases separated by intervals when they feel elated, energetic and more sociable.
In addition to general symptoms of depression, you may:
- Feel lethargic and exceptionally sleepy during the day. (Daytime sleepiness is an early warning sign of winter depression.)
- Have difficulty concentrating
- Crave foods rich in carbohydrates
- Feel less active than usual
Top winter depression tips
While craving warmth and staying in bed for a few minutes longer every morning is normal in winter, loading up on carbs and getting teary-eyed every moment of the day is not. The following tips can help you beat the winter blues.
- Increase your exposure to sunlight: Without adequate exposure to sunlight, the serotonin levels in the body can drop, and low serotonin levels lead to an enhanced risk of winter depression.
- Experiment with artificial light: Look into purchasing a light box, as it mimics the natural sunlight by emitting up to 10,000 lux. A regular light fixture usually emits anywhere between 250-500 lux. A light box works by reducing the secretion of melatonin in the brain. Melatonin is dubbed the "hormone of the dark" as its principal function is to promote sleep. Reduction in melatonin levels is integral to fighting depression. A light box can be used to effectively "lengthen" the day; just use it before daylight, post-sunset, or a combination of the two.
- Exercise daily: Something as simple as a brisk 30-minute walk can recharge you for the day. Even a single hour of aerobic exercise outdoors has the same degree of therapeutic effect as 2-3 hours of light treatment indoors.
- Limit your sugar intake: When you are already suffering from winter blues, your body will likely crave high-calorie foods rich in carbohydrates. These foods raise the serotonin levels in your body, and serotonin is a neurotransmitter which elicits feelings of elation and optimism in the brain. The problem? Likely weight gain and other health issues that, in a vicious circle, can lead to depression.
- Vitamin D-3: Exposure to the sun's rays triggers the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin. The body's development of this vitamin declines in the winter. While study results are mixed, most researchers agree that taking a vitamin D-3 supplement can increase energy levels and help fight lethargy and depression.
- Indulge in winter activities: Spice up the season with winter activities. Snowshoeing, snowboarding, skiing, winter hiking, ice skating -- they are all great ways to embrace the season. Indulge in at least one of the activities every weekend, and the memories will help brighten the dull days of the week.
- Break out of the rut: In winter it's easy to get stuck in an unproductive, lazy routine. Shake things up by wearing bright and bold colors. Style your hair in a new way. Try reaching out to an old friend or meet new people over a warm cup of coffee. Socializing and bonding with people can make you feel loved and happy.
- Refurbish your home: When you surround yourself with all things warm and vibrant, you invariably end up feeling happier. Consider painting your walls in pastel shades. Transform a dull, white kitchen into a yellow, airy retreat. Convert a drab, dark living room into an inviting haven. While you're at it, hang colorful artwork on the walls and maybe toss a few eye-catching pillows on the sofa.
- Dress up for the cold: One of the primary reasons many people complain about the winter is that they cannot wear clothes that make them look and feel sexy. If that applies to you, re-examine your wardrobe and dress in colorful, trendy winter wear. Pair up your skirts and dresses with stockings and knee-high boots. Raise your hotness quotient and garner some praise and attention this winter.
While winter might not feel terrific to many of us, it does come with its share of good things. Festivals, roaring fires, hot chocolate, snowball fights and cozy nights are just some of them. Take a deep breath, make up your mind to accept the season and keep a positive attitude, and before you know it, the dreary, cold days will fly by.
Mike Veny is one of America’s leading mental health awareness speakers, HealthCentral’s new mental health social ambassador, and a high energy corporate drumming event facilitator. He delivers educational, engaging, and entertaining presentations to meetings and conferences throughout the world. Learn more and connect with Mike at TransformingStigma.com.