Feeling Winter-Related Sadness? Here’s How to Improve Your Mood ASAP

illustration of little girl in winter standing on balcony

Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb offers her tips for combating Seasonal Affective Disorder

We’ve all heard of “the winter blues”: the feeling of depression or anxiety that creeps in as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder. But there’s of course a name and clinical diagnosis for these annual mood changes: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, knows that feeling all too well. (And talks to clients who are suffering from SAD.) But there’s no need to feel overwhelmed by gloom in silence, or chalk it up to another inevitable side effect of the colder months. If you think you’re experiencing full-fledged seasonal depression — or even if you’d just love to generally improve your emotional state by making a few small changes in your day — read Gottlieb’s thoughts on how to make your mood a bit sunnier.

How does SAD differ from clinical depression? 

Lori Gottlieb: SAD generally occurs during the winter months, when people don’t get enough sunlight exposure. We need sunlight because it provides vitamin D, and absorption of it helps regulate our moods. So rates of SAD often depend on where people live. In L.A., we might not see as many cases, but if you live in Seattle, you might have people who experience it year-round. 

Clinical depression isn’t affected by the seasons. SAD can trigger clinical depression, but people who suffer from clinical depression can have that any time of year. So in the winter, a lot of people experience clinical depression, but there are many people with clinical depression who experience it year-round. 

Many people end up with low vitamin D levels in the winter because they aren’t getting as much sunlight. Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, people aren’t even getting that little bit of outdoor time they might have when traveling from home to work. So it’s important to check in with your doctor. You might want to get your vitamin D levels checked, and ask your doctor what vitamin D dosage will be best for you. 

What are the signs that mean you should seek help, either for SAD or clinical depression?

LG: You should seek help if you’re feeling tired more of the time, you have less energy, or if you’re not getting pleasure in the things that you normally love, whether that’s spending time with your family or doing a hobby. Other signs of potential depression include trouble focusing or concentrating, or feeling “foggy.” Also disturbances of sleep — you’re either sleeping too much, or not enough, or you’re waking up in the middle of the night. And then changes in appetite, like eating too much, or having no appetite and not being hungry at all. 

If you’re feeling any of these things, talk to your doctor. I think people feel like they need to hit a certain threshold before they make that call. But what I want people to know is that if something feels off to you, no matter how much or how little, now’s the time to make the call. You don’t have to wait until things feel really bad. 

As Covid-19 levels continue to spike, we’re being discouraged from doing things that might help combat SAD, like spending time with friends or going out to eat. How would you suggest people cope with SAD when we have fewer tools at our disposal?

LG: It’s really important for people to get creative when it comes to self-care. If you can take a few minutes to walk outside and get some fresh air during the day, that’s great, but even sitting by a window will help a lot. I know that sounds really simple, but it actually is very effective. Sit by an open window during the day whenever there’s daylight. With so many people working from home or staying indoors, it’s easy to forget when it’s light out or dark out, or when it’s a weekday or the weekend. It’s really important to make those distinctions. Make sure that you structure a schedule for yourself. Try to go to bed around the same time every night, so that you have good sleep hygiene. Try to wake up around the same time every day, and open the shades when you wake up. Put new clothes on in the morning, even if it’s sweatpants. It’s important to get out of what you slept in. If you can work in a different room than you sleep in, that can be very helpful. And then at night, when you turn down your bed, there’s this neurological understanding that now it’s bedtime, and my body’s going to be tired, and I’m going to go to sleep.

In terms of the connection piece, make a virtual walking date with a friend. Go take a walk during the lightest time of the day, ask your friend to take a walk wherever he or she is, and talk on the phone while you’re both out. So you’re outdoors, you’ve changed your environment, and even if it’s cloudy or cold out, you’re still getting outside. You’re moving your body, which is really good for endorphins, you’re getting a little bit of sunlight, and you’re connecting with someone, so you’re checking off three things at once.

With so much uncertainty in the world right now, many of us wake up in the morning already feeling depressed or anxious. Do you have any tips on how to start your day on the right foot? 

LG: Make your bed in the morning. I know it sounds kind of silly, because who cares, right? But by making your bed, you’re making that distinction that you are up for the day. Having a nice physical environment can really lift your mood

After waking up, the first thing that many of us do is look at our phones. If you can take five minutes before you look at your phone and instead write down one thing that you are grateful for, that can make a world of difference in your day. It can be the smallest thing: “I’m really looking forward to having orange juice with breakfast.” Or “I’m really grateful for my son’s smile,” or “I’m so glad that it’s not raining today,” or “I’m having a good hair day.” Even if it’s something minor, if you think of your mood like a scale, that habit sets you in the “plus zone” for the day. Most people wake up and immediately they go to negative five mood-wise, because they look at the news, or see how many emails they have. Instead, try to start your day in positive territory, by letting yourself focus on gratitude for one little thing. Then as things happen during the day, like work piles up, or family issues arise, your mood might go down a little bit, but hopefully you won’t go below zero.