Autumn is a beautiful time of year—the leaves change color, and there’s a crisp feeling in the air, however, the sun slips away earlier, and the nights feel long and dark. It’s not uncommon for people to start feeling a bit of the “winter blues,” clinically known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as the weather changes.
“There are certain people who are susceptible to these changes when you get to the autumn and winter when the daylight gets shorter and it’s darker,” says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychology at Georgetown University School of Medicine who led the team that first described SAD in 1984 at the National Institute of Mental Health.
According to Rosenthal’s book Winter Blues, people are more prone to overeating, over-sleeping, and feeling less energized as winter wears on. The uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions that come with it will likely make this year’s seasonal mood swings particularly difficult to handle.
Here are some expert-approved strategies that may help lift you out of seasonal depression.
Increase your light exposure
A study that zoned in on people in North America discovered that SAD was more common among populations that lived further north, because the further away from the equator, the less daylight you get each day.
Rosenthal and Dr. Kelly Rohan, a professor and director of clinical training at the University of Vermont, both suggest trying to increase your daily exposure to light, outside and inside the home.
Walk or do activities outside
Try to avoid staying cooped up at home and instead make the most of the few hours of sunshine you do get by rejuvenating yourself with fresh and air nature.
“As long as you’re not in a complete lockdown, get outside and walk, spending some time in nature breathing fresh air,” says Rohan, adding that “seeing color in nature, like the little bit of greenery and getting direct sunlight exposure, all of these things are good for mental health.”
If there’s a chill in the air, simply layer up to stay warm.
Bright Light Therapy
If leaving your home isn’t an option, or you feel as though the light you get from a walk won’t be enough to mitigate the effects of seasonal depression, consider investing in a therapeutic lightbox.
“Bring light into your home,” suggests Rosenthal. “Use them for as little as 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, and you can start to feel a lot better.”
Rosenthal, who pioneered bright light therapy, says that it’s important to do thorough research before committing to a lamp.
Regulate your sleep schedule
Experts believe that the shift in how much daylight we are exposed to messes with our body clocks and makes us more prone to feeling deflated and lethargic.
“The most popular theory is that a later dawn in the winter triggers a slower-running circadian clock that is out of sync with the dark and light cycle,” Rohan explains. If you feel like your winter blues are getting out of hand, regulating your sleep schedule will likely make it more manageable.
Natural sleeping aids
If you have trouble falling asleep, then consider taking melatonin supplements. If you would rather not consume sleeping aids, then try placing a lavender sachet inside your pillow. The scent of lavender is known to have a calm and soothing effect.
Using a dawn simulator can help encourage your body to wake even if the sun is still far from peeking over the horizon. This will make it easier to regulate your sleep schedule by getting you out of bed in the morning and will even help you relax at night before bed by emitting a soft gentle light.
Establish and maintain routine
Committing to a regular schedule is another way to reset your circadian rhythms. “Maintain a sense of normalcy as much as possible by following a schedule. Get up. Shower. Get dressed. Make your meals at the times that you usually do,” advises Rohan.
Make sure that you also include time in your schedule for engaging in something you enjoy like a favorite hobby or indulging in a new interest.
“This is really important for mental health because there’s a very strong relationship between doing fun things and mood,” adds Rohan.
Reduce stress with exercise and meditation
Stress can also contribute to your winter blues, so try to manage it by getting some exercise in, which will lead to the release of endorphins and will help clear your mind.
“Exercises are a wonderful way to decrease stress and so is meditation,” says Rosenthal.
Yoga and meditation are great for finding peace and serenity during uncertain and scary times. For some yogi-inspiration, check out this article we wrote about different yoga poses that can help you conquer fear.