Mood fluctuations during seasonal changes are surprisingly common. In the psychiatric world, severe cases are classified as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Meanwhile, milder symptoms are known as “subsyndromal SAD” or the “winter blues.”
Cooking up a storm of warming stews in the kitchen before snuggling under her favorite blanket in the evenings, Birgit shares her 6 top tips for kicking winter depression out into the cold.
The last leaves are falling from the trees, and the recent temperate days, awash with the golden light of autumn, are fading fast. Winter is upon us, and the days are becoming shorter and greyer, the nights longer and darker. Soon, colorful days will be a rare thing.
For many people, winter can be a depressing time of year. Our bodies miss the light, and the cold, grey days can negatively impact our mental well-being. Suddenly it becomes harder to get out of bed in the mornings.
During the day, it's easier to feel tired, grumpy, and unmotivated and to crave large amounts of comforting carbs. My multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms tend to feel worse.
What is winter depression?
There are some key differences between clinical depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The latter is often seen as, ironically, a "light" version of depression.
But SAD is classified by the DSM-5 as a type of "recurring major depression with a seasonal pattern." Diagnosable cases affect a relatively small part of the population.
"Subsyndromal" SAD is much more common. You probably know it as "winter depression" or "winter blues."
Info: Subsyndromal means that symptoms aren't severe enough for a clinical diagnosis. However, it doesn't mean that your symptoms are invalid or don't affect your life.
The clinical and subsyndromal versions of SAD are more common in northern latitudes.
Lack of sunlight plays a crucial role in the underproduction of serotonin (the feel-good hormone) and the overproduction of melatonin (the sleep hormone).
Likewise, long nights, short days, and the lack of vitamin D production can also play a role.
Over the years, I've experienced symptoms of depression in conjunction with my MS. When the familiar chill of "not feeling right" settles on me, I ask myself whether it's a case of clinical depression or the winter blues. Sometimes, this can be difficult to figure out. But, after years of learning the difference between the two, I've become a wizard at identifying the problem.
When I feel my symptoms lean towards clinical depression, I go to my doctor and ask for help. When it feels like I have winter depression, I try to help myself.
How I combat the winter blues
I have reached out to my community for advice on battling the seasonal blues and making the days a bit brighter. Here are their, and my, top tips:
1. Go and “make hay while the sun shines”
“Making hay while the sun shines” is an expression that encourages making the most out of a good situation in the present!
Go outside whenever the sun is shining. Our bodies need vitamin D to feel good. So if the sun is out, step out of your house or your office and go for a walk! The natural light and fresh air will help your body and soul, and you'll get the added bonus of physical exercise.
2. Be like the Danish: be Hygge
Danish people are the masters of “Hygge.” It's a simple, wholesome philosophy that focuses on coziness, warmth, friendliness, and comfort. Ever longed for a thick blanket, a roaring fire, and hot chocolate in the company of family and/or friends? That's you craving a little Hygge in your life.
Hygge also follows the seasons. In spring, you prepare your garden for the long sunny days. In autumn, you prepare your house for the long dark nights.
3. Try something new
Some of the people in my community combat the winter blues by trying their hand at something new. You can take a course to learn a new language, join a book club or learn how to repair or restore something. Others knit and crochet for charity projects or learn carpentry. The options are endless.
4. Immerse yourself in something and free your imagination
One of my favorite things is to listen to a guided meditation podcast or read a good book in the warm light of a scented candle.
Losing myself in a TV series also helps to leave the real world behind. It can be helpful to dive into a different perspective. Also, now that we're in the Golden Age of Television, it's really fun!
I also love looking at photos from our summer holidays and reminiscing about my and my husband's grand adventures. I'll even make a photo album of our best memories of the year, which makes a great Christmas gift!
5. Enjoy hearty, wholesome food
I love salads with fish or steak in summer, but I crave rich, moreish dishes in autumn and winter.
People think “comfort food” means burgers, fries, and cakes. While there is nothing wrong with those in moderation, I’m talking about homemade food cooked with plenty of love and taste.
Hot, thick soups like pumpkin and potato, meaty stews, warm drinks, and lots of warming spices like ginger and chili are a must. Cooking and enjoying a satisfying dish restores me and helps me to feel more positive during the darker months.
6. Talk to your doctor
If you are struggling, your doctor can help you in various ways. Certain vitamins, light therapy, and counseling are all used to manage winter blues. Your doctor will also help you to identify clinical depression and can intervene if necessary.
So, if your symptoms of low mood persist, please make an appointment with a healthcare professional. Even subsyndromal SAD can hugely impact your life during the winter months.
There's no reward for "fighting through it" or putting on a brave face. The first step toward proper self-care is understanding that your thoughts and feelings are valid - not "silly" at all!
The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.
NPS-ALL-NP-00689 FEBRUARY 2023