Illustration of people bundled up in winter weather. One sad, two happy.
Illustration of people bundled up in winter weather. One sad, two happy.
Illustration of people bundled up in winter weather. One sad, two happy.

6 tips to beat the winter blues

U-M expert shares ways to deal with the doldrums

By Anissa Gabbara | Art by Adam Beeman

Another winter has come to pass—a time when bare branches are embellished with flurries of snow, and curling up under the covers while clinging to a cup of cocoa never sounded better. For some, it’s the picture-perfect winter day. For others, dreary skies and dwindling temperatures can make for a melancholy mood

Studies estimate that 10‒20% of American adults experience some level of mood changes depending on the time of year.* 

“In seasonal depression, we see a pattern tied to the seasons, where your mood is worse in the fall and winter, and then it improves in the spring and summer as the days get longer,” said Leslie Swanson, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School, and member of the Frances and Kenneth Eisenberg and Family Depression Center. “Maybe you’re feeling more down, sleeping more, or less interested in doing things you usually find enjoyable as fall and winter set in—that would be a sign that you’re experiencing the winter blues.” 

Weathering the winter blues can be tough, but it’s possible. Read on for Swanson’s tips on how to cope with this seasonal slump:

1. ‘Brighten’ up your day

Get into bright light as soon as you can around your habitual wake time. If you can keep that habitual wake time consistent seven days a week, that’s ideal because it sends a strong signal to your circadian clock about when you want to be awake, which supports your mood. Bright light therapy, which you can get through using a light box or light glasses for 15-30 minutes in the morning, can also help. The other thing to keep in mind is natural light exposure throughout the day, not just in the morning, because sunlight and bright daytime environments are best for our neurotransmitters and mood.

Illustration of woman sitting on a stool, soaking up the sun.

2. Get moving

Exercise is critically important in supporting mood, especially in the fall and winter, when we tend to be more sedentary. Consider going for a walk or doing some type of workout indoors, whether it’s aerobics, yoga, or hopping on a treadmill.

Illustration of a woman doing yoga poses wearing a Michigan shirt.

3. Nestle in nature

There’s no such thing as bad weather. There’s only bad clothing. So, bundle up, bring a warm beverage, and get out in nature, because we know that being outdoors is great for improving our mood. Data shows that two hours of exposure to natural settings each week is what’s best for supporting overall well-being. In Nordic countries, they have a concept called “friluftsliv,” which essentially means “free air life”—embracing the outdoors regardless of the weather. This is an important concept that us Michiganders can think about applying to our own lives.

Illustration of a man bundled up outside in winter weather, wearing a Michigan scarf.

4. Adapt early

Eventually, we physically adapt to the cold weather. The sooner you adjust to the cold by getting outside, even in the fall, the easier it is to get out later in the winter and have it be comfortable. There’s also the Nordic “hygge” concept, which is the idea of making your living space as cozy, warm, and comfortable as you can, no matter the weather outside.

Illustration of a man with a beard, wearing winter clothes and a yellow scarf, enjoying the outdoors.

5. Find the fun

Make the most of activities that can only be done in the winter, like sledding, skiing, snowshoeing, and playing in the snow. Engage in outdoor activities that you enjoy—anything that you can tie specifically to the season.

Illustration of a girl wearing a winter jacket, playing in the snow and building a snowman.

6. Remember you’re not alone

If your mood is down to the point where you’re having trouble engaging in your usual social activities or focusing at work, that could be a sign of a depressive episode and potentially seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Talk to your mental health professional if this is the case. You don’t have to struggle alone.

Illustration of a woman with blue hair, on her phone reaching out to her doctor.

Fostering mental health 

Established more than 20 years ago, the Depression Center is dedicated to finding innovative ways to nurture mental health and well-being across the community through high-impact research. The center is named after Frances and Kenneth Eisenberg and their family in recognition of their transformational giving toward depression research and scholarship. 

To Srijan Sen, director of the center and Frances and Kenneth Eisenberg Professor of Depression and Neurosciences, philanthropic support is key to improving lives and empowering communities to understand, treat, and prevent depression. 

“This is a really unique and critical point of the history of the Depression Center, where investment can really change the world and change the course of not only the center, but this disease and how it affects people.”

The Eisenberg Family Depression Center Toolkit provides resources for those experiencing concerns with mental health. Learn more

*https://familydoctor.org/condition/seasonal-affective-disorder/

 

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