How to boost your mood and beat the winter blues

Allison Mirell-Heaton
Allison Mirell-Heaton
December 17, 2019

It's common for me, one of your friendly Student Counseling Center Staff, to hear from friends, family, neighbors and students that they tend to get more depressed in the winter.

Presently on our office radio I hear the lyrics "Oh it's the most wonderful time of the yeeeaaaaarrrr!" And I think to myself: not for everyone.

It's actually quite normal for energy levels and moods to take a hit in the winter. Some people experience a severe dip in mood, some may even develop depression. This can be a form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

According to Andrea Rogers, Supervisor for Intensive Outpatient Programs in the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars Sinai, the change in seasons and reduced sunlight can cause a shift in our internal biological clocks, or circadian rhythm. 

It gets dark much earlier in the day after daylight savings, which can cause our brains to produce more of a sleep-related hormone called melatonin. This is thought to contribute to depressive episodes in winter months.

So what's a person to do? The short answer is exercise, diet, sleep, stress management and social support. here's a short list of mood boosting and well being activities that are sure to help!


1. Exercise

Aerobic exercise especially helps release feel-good chemicals that not only help you energize, but also create a mood boost in most people. Hate the gym? Already feeling so fatigued from depression you can't fathom a 30-60 minute sweat session? Download a five or seven minute workout app and build up the time in increments. Or, mall walk with a friend (or by yourself with an inspiring podcast to distract unhelpful thoughts).


2. Eat well 

Increase the "real food" in your diet and limit refined sugar. (To be clear, restricting or banning food has no place in your quest for wellness.) You can go for that candy cane or oatmeal cookie, but make sure you're also getting your fruits, vegetables and protein. According to an article from MedicalNewsToday, people with moderate-to-severe depression saw improved symptoms when they received nutritional counseling sessions and ate a more healthful diet for 12 weeks.


3. Get enough sleep

Make sure you're sleeping enough, but also try to limit it to nighttime hours. Many people with depression (SAD or not) and anxiety struggle with sleep. But did you know that there's scientific evidence that too much screen time during the day and before bed can cause sleep problems or exacerbate existing issues? The National Sleep Foundation recommends that you turn off your screens one hour prior to when you'd like to go to sleep.

If you can't kick the habit cold turkey, you can do "good enough" and follow this tip from the mayo clinic: keep the screen 14 inches away from your face and dim the light as much as possible.  This can help reduce the negative impact of blue light frequency, which can influence your brain's release of melatonin. 


4. Manage stress

You're not helpless against it, but you do have to actively manage it. Don't overbook yourself. Try to balance time by yourself and with others. You may need to schedule this instead of just going with the flow. Another good idea is to try regular guided relaxation or mindfulness. Headspace and Calm are two apps that can help, just to name a few.

5. Social support

Last but not least, humans are social creatures. We're meant to be in community with others. We give support and friendship to others so please remember that you, too, are deserving of care and support. 

Sometimes we need to talk to get support and perspective. It can help to have others challenge our negative thoughts when we have trouble doing that for ourselves. It might help you to see that you're not alone. Consider opening up to a friend, religious leader, family member or therapist. 

Not ready to open up quite yet? Then spend some time with others to remind yourself that you're part of a greater whole and that others do want to be with you. Go volunteer with a friend, watch a move with a family member and make snacks together beforehand. Help an elderly neighbor with a task or chore and ask them about how they've tolerated winter all these years!

Know that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may not necessarily be your fate, but even if its there's a lot you can do to relieve the symptoms. If you feel your depression lingers despite all the aforementioned suggestions, you could benefit from consulting a doctor to see if medications and/or light therapy may work for you.

Whatever you do, please remember that spring always comes! Sunshine and warmer weather will soon(ish) be on the the way.

Take care and be well!

Allison Mirell-Heaton
Allison Mirell-Heaton
Student Counselor