Seasonal Sadness: 7 Tips to Make the Colder Months Better

by Joanna Z. Weston

It’s still summer, and the last thing I want to be thinking about are the cold months ahead. There are still bike rides to take and gardens to enjoy, and I still haven’t taken that kayak ride that I wanted! But in the back of my mind I am already beginning to panic.

Other people slip into a bona fide depression, either because they suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or perhaps a predisposition to depression that simply worsens in winter, and those people are the ones who truly panic. I know, because I am one of them.

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept responsibility for changing them” ~Denis Waitley

Many people in the more northern latitudes feel down in the winter—less energetic, less engaged, less motivated—and those people may start feeling apprehensive as winter approaches.

A few years ago I declared that I was through with suffering through every winter. I was ready to take control of my situation instead of letting the situation control me. That simple decision made all the difference because it changed my attitude.

The first thing I did was to address the biological basis for winter depression.

As the days become shorter and the light becomes less direct, we absorb fewer rays through our eyes. In some people, this leads to a reduction in serotonin (one of the important chemicals in our brain) and thus a reduction in mood and energy.

To combat the lack of sunshine, I purchased and began to use a light box. This is a specially designed light, packing in 10,000 lux. As a point of comparison, the average office is lit to 320 to 500 lux, while the sun provides approximately 10,000 to 25,000 lux in full daylight (more in direct sunlight).

Once I started sitting in front of my light box for 20−30 minutes every morning, I began to feel much more alert and in control. But it was not quite enough. I still felt out of sorts and foggy, like there was a roll of cotton between me and the rest of the world.

Over the next year or two, I learned that to truly cope with my winter funk I had to change the way I responded to not only the season, but the inevitable vagaries of life.

I needed to begin anticipating problems before they occurred and preparing myself for what was by now a fairly predictable cycle. I’ve put together a list of a few of the lessons I learned during that struggle.

Here are a few things that you can do right now to make your winter better.

1. If you can afford it, buy a light box.

These are amazingly effective if the lack of sunlight gets you down.

2. Soak up the sun. 

This may seem obvious, but I want to encourage you to spend as much time outside as possible in the coming months. Not only will it help you store up some sun exposure before it slips away, but when winter comes it will be much easier to make yourself get outside every single day if you are already doing it!

And getting sunlight through the winter is possibly the single most helpful thing you can do for yourself.

3. Plan ahead.

If you exchange gifts with anybody during the winter holidays, try to get them purchased as early as possible, so that you don’t have to worry about them in December. September is not too early to do your Christmas/Yule/Hannukah/Kwanzaa shopping!

4. Buy a day planner (or planner app).

They can be very useful when you are feeling extra distracted and lethargic, which can describe most of us at some point during the winter! And with school starting up again, a whole new crop of “academic” planner that runs August to August (as opposed to the calendar year) are showing up in stores. Take advantage of that.

5. Make a date.

Depression makes us retreat from social contact, but isolation makes depression so much worse. Right now, before you start slipping into sadness mode, identify someone you trust who can serve as a social anchor. Set up weekly, biweekly, or (at the very least) monthly dates to meet up with them to connect.

6. Look forward to fall.

If you know you are prone to seasonal sadness, then the changing leaves and shortening days can feel like a herald of doom. But that kind of thinking will only hasten the oncoming depression, so try to find some way to enjoy the fall!

Get outside for some long walks now that things are cooling down, go apple picking, or find some other way to engage with the season.

7. Just say no.

While it’s important that you make an effort to stay engaged with your friends and activities, you don’t have to do anything you don’t feel up to doing.

If someone asks you to help with something, take up new responsibilities, or just go to a party you aren’t interested in, feel free to decline. Whatever they wanted you to do, it’s not more important than your mental health!

As we inch toward the dark half of the year, I hope you keep some of these tips in mind. Remember: you can take control of your seasonal sadness!

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