Navigating Winter Blues: Strategies to Support Your Mental Health During the Dark Days of Winter

Winter can sometimes feel like an uphill battle, particularly when it comes to mental health.

Getting out of bed when it’s essentially still nighttime requires mustering motivation solely from muscle memory. Navigating icy roads fueled by little more than coffee isn’t easy either. By the time you arrive at work and travel back home again, dusk has nearly fallen once more. Juggling a packed schedule with existing responsibilities, coupled with the challenge of shorter, darker evenings, makes it tougher to muster the motivation and energy for hitting the gym or socializing with friends.

Combined with post-holiday blues, tighter budgets after the shopping season, failed New Year’s resolutions, and the relentless cold, it is no wonder that January and February often find us wondering, “When will winter finally end?”

Winter mood changes: Blue Monday and SAD

In 2005, a UK travel company dubbed the third Monday in January as “Blue Monday,” attributing it to post-holiday and weather-related factors. Although the specific methodology behind selecting that date lacks a scientific basis, it is commonly recognized that January tends to be associated with low moods for those who live in the Northern Hemisphere.

For many people, seasonal changes can have a noticeable impact on mental health, meeting the criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 4-6% of adults experience winter depression, with 10-20% showing mild SAD symptoms, and women being four times more susceptible than men.

This seasonal effect can increase the farther north someone lives. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, as many as 35% of Canadians complain of having the “winter blues,” 10-15% have a mild form of seasonal depression, and up to 5% have a severe, clinical form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Even for those who do not experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, the shorter winter days and colder weather can still influence mood, motivation, and energy levels in more subtle ways. Recognizing these seasonal impacts is important, as it can provide helpful perspective and encouragement to navigate through the challenges of winter and manage low mood effectively.

What is seasonal depression?

In a LifeSpeak expert resource, Taking Control of Seasonal Blues, clinical psychologist Dr. Marni Amsellem says seasonal changes in mood are caused by biochemical imbalances in the brain triggered by shorter days and decreased sunlight. For some people, reduced daylight also alters their circadian rhythm, making it harder to respond to the demands of daily life.

Dr. Amsellem says some signs of seasonal depression include:

  • feeling sad or depressed
  • feeling low energy
  • losing interest in activities
  • trouble concentrating
  • increased appetite, and
  • a heightened desire for sleep

So, how do we alleviate seasonal depression or combat the overall winter blues?

Find the light

Dr. Amsellem’s first tip is to find the light. As noted, limited sunlight is thought to be a major factor in seasonal depression. She explains that people can actively seek exposure to daylight to help counter the effects of less sunlight.

“Make sure blinds are open while inside during daylight, and seek the outdoors regularly, particularly early in the day. The dose of sunshine can become an instant boost. The list of reasons we can come up with to talk ourselves into staying inside is long, but the benefits of stepping outside can be significant. Benefits include improved overall stress management and wellbeing in addition to reducing seasonal depression symptoms.”

She says that those who need an extra boost can consider light therapy lamps, which produce artificial daylight. These can be especially helpful for anyone who lives in a place that doesn’t get a lot of sunlight in the winter, such as the far north or the Pacific Northwest.

Tap into your social support system 

Another of Dr. Amsellem’s tips is to reach out to others. This can mean getting out of the house to spend time with friends or family members, or even volunteering in your community. People who suffer from seasonal depression don’t have to talk specifically about their feelings, but doing so can help, even if it is scary.

In her LifeSpeak video, Speaking to Others About Depression, psychotherapist Dr. Lisa Ndejuru says it’s important for people suffering from depression to share their feelings with someone trustworthy, someone who can remain discreet while potentially supporting them.

The person seeking support can ask their confidant if they’ve noticed any changes in them. This type of question can be a good starting point for a discussion about difficult feelings.

Try to get at least a little bit of exercise every day

LifeSpeak Inc. expert Dr. Carly Crewe points out that exercise is an often-neglected form of depression and anxiety treatment, meaning people don’t use it as often as they should. It can be hard to feel motivated when depressed.

“Research shows that moderate exercise a few times each week can be as effective, if not more effective, than medication, to treat mood-related symptoms, and with almost zero side effects. When it comes to exercising to treat anxiety and mood symptoms, research suggests exercising for 20 to 30 minutes for three to four days per week. Keep in mind, not all of your exercise needs to be done in one big chunk; you can break it up into small portions throughout the day.”

Think nutrition 

According to nutritionist Nishta Saxena, hydration and a healthy diet are other ways to improve and stabilize mood.

In a LifeSpeak expert resource, Food and Mood: What’s the Connection? Saxena explains that the human brain is more than 70% water, and even just a 2% change in hydration can cause cognitive impairment. Saxena also says chronic dehydration causes fatigue, depression, and the inability to make clear decisions.

As a guideline, Saxena says most adults benefit from drinking 2-3 liters of hydrating fluids per day—including water, herbal teas, various kinds of milk and plant beverages, and homemade soups.

Saxena also recommends eating as many whole fruits and vegetables as possible.

“Plant foods have the biggest impact on mood; the more the merrier. Eating a wide variety of plants is protective for mental health by providing necessary vitamins and minerals to our system. Vitamins that are water and fat-soluble are found in brightly colored fruits, either frozen or fresh are a great source. Dark leafy greens are an important source of minerals to support mood regulation.”

She adds that fruits and vegetables are also important sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals that affect our brain function and hormone production, which are closely linked to mood.

“Aim to get between 5 to 10 servings of vegetables daily and mix it up; people who eat more than 30 different plants in a week tend to have overall better health.”

Seek professional guidance 

While making lifestyle adjustments can certainly help improve mood and alleviate mild winter blues, it is important to recognize that depression is a complex mental health issue that may require professional support.

Dr. Carly Crewe says that therapy or counselling is one of the most important treatments for anxiety and depression.

“Although it can seem intimidating to speak to someone about how you’re feeling and what’s going on in your life, spending time with a therapist or counsellor can make a huge difference in your mood. Many women think that therapy is simply talking about their problems with a stranger. While some therapists do offer supportive counselling, what I encourage my patients to seek out from a therapist is to ask for tools and skills to manage their mood disorder. This looks like cognitive behavioral therapy, to learn how to manage and challenge anxious thoughts, and maybe even dialectical behavioral therapy strategies, to help manage overwhelming emotions and work on interpersonal skills.”

If you are experiencing persistent or debilitating depressive symptoms, it is highly recommended to seek therapy or other tailored resources from a qualified mental health professional. Though struggling with depression often feels isolating, remember that you do not have to cope alone.

Want to learn more about how to help your team members manage their mental health? 

Given the prevalence of these mental health challenges for employees, it is crucial for workplaces to prioritize the support of emotional wellness during the colder months. Open communication and understanding are key, as the “winter blues” can affect anyone. By raising awareness of mental health challenges, promoting resources, and encouraging people to seek help, organizations can build a resilient workforce and foster a more psychologically safe environment for employees.

To learn more about how the LifeSpeak Inc. suite of solutions can help employees and their families manage seasonal depression and promote overall mental health and wellbeing, book a demo today.