By Dr. Haris, Board-Certified Medical Practitioner

Short days, dark and cold nights, breaths visible – the world has succumbed to a hushed serenity as the coldest season of the year is here.

Where winter causes a graceful metamorphosis of nature, it also brings along many challenges to our physical and mental well-being. Constantly running nose, tips turning into a rosy tinge – the reign of common cold is about to begin. However, winter is not just the season of flues; it carries a significant impact on the mood as well.

As the temperature falls, some people feel that their energy levels have dropped out of sudden. Focusing on work has become exceedingly difficult and a constant feeling of tiredness prevails throughout the day. A few also complain about the marked changes in sleep and dietary patterns.

If you have been observing such symptoms and feeling low since the winter‘s arrival, you may be among the 10% to 20% of the people who experience some sort of seasonal mood drifts, the severe form of which is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as the winter blues. According to an estimate, around 10 million Americans experience these seasonal mood changes at some level.

What is it, how it occurs and how to avoid it? This article talks about everything you need to know about winter blues. 

What is Winter Blues?

‘Winter blues’ is a fancy term used for a medical condition, called Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is a type of major depression triggered by the change in seasons.

Characterized by fatigue, sleeping issues, loss of appetite, concentration and feelings of hopelessness and despair, the condition follows a seasonal pattern. People usually observe these symptoms in the late spring or early winter. 

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What are the Causes of Winter Blues?

Though many people correlate with the abrupt decline in mood and energy as the winter approaches, they frown when being told that it is a psychological condition. Winter blues may sound like a myth but substantial pieces of evidence have been found suggesting the influence of seasons in altering our mood.

One potential explanation is the reduced exposure to sunlight during winter. Shorter daylight hours throw off the natural circadian rhythm of the body disrupting the levels of certain hormones associated with mood and sleep-wake cycle.

For instance, researchers have found that people who suffer from SAD have relatively lower levels of serotonin in the brain which is a ‘feel good’ hormone. It is believed that reduced sunlight exposure downregulates the molecules responsible for maintaining the normal synthesis and activity of the serotonin hormone.

Besides, vitamin D, which is itself a promoter of serotonin activity, is less produced in winter due to limited exposure to sunlight. This further exacerbates the condition of people suffering from SAD.

On the other hand, some studies have linked this winter depression with the overproduction of melatonin – a hormone essential for regulating the sleep-wake cycle. Elevated levels of melatonin in the body increase sleepiness and feelings of tiredness and lethargy. All these are the common symptoms of winter-pattern SAD.

How to Know if You Are Having Winter Blues?

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Not everyone displaying depressive symptoms is labeled as having winter blues. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a person is said to be suffering from the winter-pattern seasonal affective disorder only if he or she meets the following criteria;

–        Symptoms of depression are there, including;

·         Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, or low mood almost throughout the day lasting for at least 2 weeks

·         Hopelessness

·         Irritability or restlessness

·         Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless

·         Social withdrawal

·         Loss of interest and pleasure in things once enjoyed

·         Loss of concentration

·         Low energy and fatigue

·         Oversleeping or hypersomnia

·         Change in appetite and body weight – etc

–        The depressive symptoms occur during a specific season, i.e. winter, for at least 2 consecutive years

–        The symptomatic episodes are more frequent during winter as compared to any other time of the year

Tips to Avoid Winter Blues

As you have known by now that winter blues is a depressive disorder, you simply need to do things that lift up your mood.

So, before booking appointments for photo- and psychotherapies, or taking antidepressant medications, try these mood-lifting tips to beat the seasonal depression this winter. 

Tighten your shoelaces and be on the move

Exercise is a good way to bring out the ‘feel good’ hormones in your body. Besides, it has also been found quite effective in overcoming the depressive symptoms.

So, make a workout routine. Join a gym, go for a run, ride a bicycle, or whatever – but do moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 15 to 30 minutes, five times a week.

Treat yourself to a yummy delight

Winter blues often make people crave for carbs and sugary diet. Eating healthy foods, like fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood, etc, is essential to beat the blues, but it’s always a good idea to take a sneak tweak and cater your taste buds with a delicious meal.

Look for food options that are tasty and healthy at the same time – like a cup of hot chocolate or cocoa drink in the evening. It will boost your serotonin levels making you feel good.

Follow a sleep routine

Warm and cozy beds in the dark mornings of the winter are quite tempting to remain asleep for a little bit more time. This, however, leads to oversleeping which in turn makes you feel tired and lethargic when you wake up.

Stick to a sleeping routine. Set up your alarms to wake up on time. Making a bedtime ritual will help you in combating this seasonal depression.

See the Sunshine

To be the sunshine, you need to see the sunshine. Open your blinds or curtains, and let the sunrays pass through your windows. Take your time out and go outside especially at midday or brighter days to have some natural sunlight. A few minutes’ scroll under the sun during the lunch break is also good. It will lift your mood and also improve your mental and physical well-being.

Try light therapy at home

Obviously, you can’t enjoy the sun during the darker days. In that case, you can have that light therapy at home. Sit by the side of a lamp whose light mimics the natural outdoor light. It will help.

Throw a Party

It’s always good to have your friends or loved ones around you. Throw a small seasonal party, host a dinner, or invite them for a game night. It will be fun.

But remember, over-partying, large gatherings and chronic interpersonal hassles could be stressful for you. So, be moderate in that as well.

Make a To-Do list

Making a To-Do list of manageable tasks is a good way to keep you moving and overcome procrastination during the lazy winter. Try to write down even the minor household chores so that whenever you complete them, you get a feeling of competence and accomplishment.

Moreover, besides ticking the work-related checkpoints, also include things that give you pleasure like having a cup of tea in the evening, or taking your time out for your hobbies. These are some effective ways to alleviate the depressive symptoms.  

Bottom Line

Winter blues, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a not-so-rare psychological condition characterized by low mood and energy decline during the winter season. Reduced sunlight exposure potentially alters the body’s hormones causing such depressive symptoms. Recognizing symptoms and adopting mood-lifting activities, like exercise, healthy eating, sun exposure, and maintaining routines can help in combating the winter blues efficiently.

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