If you are feeling the cold, in your mood as well as your body, you are not alone. Short and grey days, less time to do fun activities, and the wind-down after the holiday season can all contribute to “winter blues” – the generally mild and short term depressed mood that commonly occurs around this time of year.
Managing winter blues includes many of the same efforts that keep us mentally healthy throughout the year: movement, healthy diet, adequate sleep, sunlight, connection with friends, and engaging in activities you enjoy.
Get regular exercise, sunlight, and spend time outdoors. Spend as much time as possible outside, weather permitting, to get fresh air and sunshine. If you don’t have the opportunity to go outside during the daylight, being near a window can really help with mood. Most people get enough Vitamin D from sunlight but because we are more covered up and have fewer opportunities to be in the sun, ask your health care provider if they suggest a test to see if you need to supplement during the winter. Use training apps, fitness videos, or virtual classes to bring exercise indoors if you can’t get to a gym or class. Signing up for a class, though, might be the motivation you need to get more exercise. Set daily goals for movement such as a number of minutes to dance to your favorite music, or number steps to get. Form a group of friends or coworkers with whom to exercise – in addition to the movement, social interactions are vital to mental health.
Eat healthy. Feeling down may cause you to crave unhealthy foods high in sugar or salt and low in nutrition, which can lead to a negative spiral of low energy and low mood. Healthy foods can be prepared in ways that make them appealing in cold weather, for example, dark leafy greens can be added to soups or sautéed for a simple side dish. Vegetables like carrots, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, beets, and chickpeas and nuts can be lightly coated with olive oil and your favorite seasoning and roasted for a warm side dish or snack. Experiment with spices to add flavor instead of using salt and sugar. Beans and lentils digest slowly, helping control blood sugar and keeping you from getting “hangry.”
Frozen and low-sodium/low-sugar canned vegetables and fruit are just as good as fresh. These items are also really helpful to have on hand for the times when low mood or energy mean you might eat fast food or a processed meal just to have something to eat. Whole grains like quinoa and bulgur wheat will cook in under 20 minutes while you sauté or roast those frozen vegetables and broil a lean protein for a balanced meal. Citrus fruit and many vegetables contain Vitamin C which boosts the immune system and is also good for mood. Vitamin D can be obtained in foods like eggs, salmon, and mushrooms. Frozen fruit can be added to plain Greek yogurt for a sweet treat that contributes to gut health.
Make sure to get enough and good quality sleep. Every individual is different in the amount of sleep they need, but sleep disorders are common and sleep deficiency can cause short and long-term effects. Shift workers often do not get adequate quality sleep. Sleep deficiency can interfere with daily functioning and contribute to chronic health problems, including depression. On the other hand, if you are having the opposite problem and are sleeping too much, that could be a sign that you are depressed. Taking steps to improve sleep could be key to a happier, healthier life year-round. Recommendations include:
· maintaining a regular sleep schedule even on days off,
· using relaxation techniques to prepare for sleep,
· avoiding devices and television for at least 30 minutes before sleep,
· removing light and sound distractions from your sleeping space,
· limiting caffeine to the early hours of your workday, and
· avoiding nicotine and alcohol too close to bedtime (by more than 4 hours is recommended).
o A note about alcohol: even though alcohol causes drowsiness, alcohol can disrupt the sleep cycle, decrease the quality of sleep, and possibly even lead to sleep apnea.
o For more information about how alcohol affects sleep, please visit https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/alcohol-and-sleep.
If “winter blues” are interfering with your daily functioning and last more than a couple of weeks, you should talk to a mental health provider. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern, commonly referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression in late fall and winter, alternating with periods of normal mood the rest of the year. Typically, SAD begins and ends for someone around the same time every year; occasionally, people experience SAD on the opposite seasonal schedule (spring/summer). Symptoms may start out mild and continue to get worse as the season progresses.
Common signs of fall/winter SAD include:
· Oversleeping with daytime fatigue and sluggishness,
· Craving carbohydrates, overeating, and gaining weight,
· Losing interest in activities and/or withdrawing from friends,
· Experiencing feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, or even not wanting to live.
People who already experience mental health challenges may notice their symptoms worsen in the winter and should be careful to keep up with therapy and medications that may already be in place. Additional therapies may be necessary to help with SAD. If you are struggling, it is important to reach out for help. Even if you think you “just” have the winter blues, if you are not able to function normally or bounce back quickly, consider talking to your healthcare provider to explore treatment options.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please CALL Colorado Crisis Services at 844-493-TALK (8255), TEXT TALK to 38255, or go ONLINE at www.coloradocrisisservices.org
The national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number is 988.