7 Things Your Therapist Wants You to Know About Winter and Low Mood

by Jennifer Tzeses Health Writer

The bone-chilling cold, the days on end spent indoors, the darkness descending like a black plague in the middle of the afternoon—it’s enough to put even those with a normally sunny disposition into a downward spiral. But when you couple the winter season with a case of bipolar, it can really wreak havoc. “People with bipolar are more likely to have depressive episodes in winter when there is less sunlight,” says Aimee Daramus, Psy.D., a psychotherapist in Chicago and adjunct professor of psychology at City Colleges of Chicago.

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Meanwhile, people with bipolar are more likely to experience hypomanic episodes in spring and summer when there’s more sunlight. Studies have shown that the seasons affect mood more for those with bipolar disorder than they do for those with other mental health conditions including depression. Not everyone with bipolar is more affected by winter, but if the darkest days are dragging you down, consider these expert-approved strategies for lightening up.

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Let the Sunshine In

The amount of sunlight those with bipolar get in the wintertime seems to be far more important than the overall weather or average temperature, Daramus says. In fact, “the influence of sunlight is so powerful that geographic areas with less sunlight all over the world are connected with earlier age of onset and more severe mood episodes,” she says. A 2019 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found dramatic changes in sunlight between summer and winter may be associated with increased suicide attempts among those with bipolar.

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Spot Symptoms Early

If you know that your bouts of depression tend to cluster in the winter months, it can help to keep a lookout for certain clues that a cycle is about to start—so you can proactively manage it. Some symptoms are fairly obvious: Feelings of sadness or numbness is one indication that depression is setting in, as is loss of pleasure or motivation, feeling fatigued, crying, anger, or suicidal thoughts, says psychiatrist Lindsay Israel, M.D., chief medical officer of Success TMS in Palm Beach Gardens, FL.

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Know These Surprising Red Flags

Fatigue and listlessness are common signs of low mood, but other symptoms can be sneaky. “People will often notice individual symptoms, like a change in their taste in food or music, their work style, or how much of a social life they want,” says Dr. Israel. “If you can zero in on patterns, you’ll be able to stay ahead of mood swings.” And if you do start noticing changes in your behavior, “see your prescriber for a medication check right before the time of year when you typically shift moods,” Daramus says.

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Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Something Different

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder induced by the biological effects of a lack of sunlight, rearing its head in late fall and winter. While seasonal bipolar disorder may have similar depressive signs, there’s a major difference: it’s also marked by manic episodes on either side of the depression. Not everyone with bipolar experiences a seasonal impact, and scientists posit that those with do may have abnormalities in the genes that control their circadian rhythms—the predictable cycles of light and dark, and sleep and wake we experience biologically.

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Your Circadian Rhythm Can Trip You Up

Winter can really do a number on your circadian rhythm, and those with bipolar are highly sensitive to these changes. “If you have a longer nights, there’s less natural light reaching your eyes, which in turn stimulates your brain, so we see more depressive symptoms,” says Dr. Israel. Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule by paying attention to your body’s internal cues and using lights and alarm clocks as external reminders, rather than the actual change in light, which can fool you into thinking it’s always time to sleep.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Fake It

If you live in an area with minimal winter sun, a phototherapy device can effectively supplement the lack of daylight, Dr. Israel says. In a 2019 meta-analysis published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, light therapy was shown to significantly improve depressive symptoms in those with bipolar. Researchers believe that the light acts through the eyes to help regulate the biological clock in our brain. Another theory is that light directly affects mood-related neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, in the same way as antidepressants.

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Steer Clear of Comfort Foods

Despite their name, comfort foods can be anything but comforting when low mood strikes. “Loading up on carbs and sugar can cause a crash, which can lead to mood swings,” Dr. Israel says. Though there isn’t a magic food to keep bipolar symptoms at bay, maintaining a balanced and healthy diet can help. And make sure you’ve got enough iron in your system. “Without iron, your energy is going to be low, which can set you up for lethargy and poor concentration,” Dr. Israel says. She also recommends upping your omega-3 fatty acid intake, which may help boost mood.

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Commit to a Routine

Setting yourself up with a schedule of activities you enjoy is what gets you out of bed on the darkest winter days. “It’s important to plan ahead and stay in a regular routine during the cold weather months,” Dr. Israel says. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that regular routines, including steady sleep patterns and activity levels, helped regulate people’s circadian rhythms, thereby easing new cycles of depression and mania better than those who just took medication.

Jennifer Tzeses
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Tzeses

Jennifer Tzeses is a writer and content strategist specializing in health, beauty, psychology and lifestyle. She's written for The Wall Street Journal, Mind Body Green, CNN, Architectural Digest, Barron's, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Psycom, Elle, Marie Claire, and more. Follow her on Instagram @jtzeses.